How Your Employee Expectations Fosters Under-Performance

Photo by Joel Dinda

Photo by Joel Dinda

My brother-in-law often tells a story of a trip he once took in which after years of dreaming about it he was finally able to visit a very famous MLB baseball stadium. Walking around the stadium and absorbing the history of that place made it a trip of a lifetime for him. Though he was able to tour the stadium, he was unable to actually take in a game because the team was traveling during that time frame. One upside of the team being gone was that the guided tour he participated in allowed visitors to enter the home team dugout and catch a glimpse of the view the players have during a game.

Through the process, the tour guide was constantly reminding them of what rules they must adhere to while on the tour. “Don’t enter that door. Don’t touch that picture. Don’t go pass the barrier.” I am sure herding a group of baseball fanatics around such an iconic stadium is similar to herding a group of children at Disney World.

As they tour reached the dugout, the number of tour requirements and the policing of those requirements began to increase. With that many die-hard baseball fans in the group, all it would take is one lone wolf to break ranks and instigate a riot. I can just see the avalanche of adult men and women cascading out onto the field, running around on the grass and rolling in the dirt, completely destroying what the grounds crew had worked so hard to perfect.

To prevent such a scene, the actual touching of the field was completely forbidden. In the dugout, the tour guide repeatedly stressed to the tourists “Please do not touch the grass.” Over and over he had to repeat himself as hands slowly leaned in for just a brush of the beautiful green turf.

Of course, even with all the requirements being clearly laid out and constantly reinforced, what do you think my brother-in-law did just as soon as the tour guide became distracted? In his words he recalls “I reached out, grabbed a hunk of grass and shoved it in my pocket.”

What is it about our human nature that leads us to often do exactly what we are told not to do? For example, have you ever been at a restaurant with a friend having a conversation when out of the blue they looked at you and said “Don’t look now but there is so-and-so.” You almost cannot not turn around and look. Your mind begins to race over all the possibilities of what you might see if you could just turn your head a little to catch a glimpse. It takes everything within you not to immediately whip your head around and stare at what just walked through the door.

It’s not a learned behavior but is inherent in every one of us. My boys at home have demonstrated the behavior as early as I can remember. When I tell my four year old son not to touch something and he knows that it won’t hurt him, he often looks at me square in the eye and says “But I have to touch it. I just have to. I have to.”

As a manager of people, how often do we phrase our employee expectations in a similar manner then wonder why our employees often do not follow the rules we put in place or exceed our expectations? “Don’t be late. Don’t leave your computer unlocked. Don’t leave without entering your time.” Phrasing expectations in this manner simply brings out our natural tendency to not follow the rules.

Simply rephrasing the expectation is not the answer though. Changing from “don’t be late” to “be on time” is simply restating the same command from a “don’t” to a “do”. The meaning behind the expectation remains the same.

Managing for the Minimum

I call putting these types of expectations on our employees “managing for the minimum”. You manage for the minimum when you give your employees the minimum requirements for their position then hope they exceed those requirements. The problem is that we as humans inherently often do not follow the rules given to use or we do just enough to meet the minimum requirements and nothing more.

I liken it to giving a runner a finish line for a race then hope they continue running even farther after they have crossed the line. We would never look at a marathon runner and think “Well, they ONLY just crossed the line. I was really hoping they would run another ten miles after the finish line.” That is exactly what we do to our employees when we just give them the minimum requirements then hope they drastically exceed those expectations.

If we truly want to get the best out of our employees we must start “managing toward the master”.

Managing toward the Master

I have three boys so Star Wars is a big deal in my house. When Yoda is training Luke Skywalker, Yoda never gives Luke a minimum set of requirements he must meet to be a Jedi. If he did he might say “Don’t join the dark side. Do be able to lift some boxes using only the Force. Be able to feel if your friends are about to get captured by a guy in an all-black outfit.” Instead, Yoda paints the picture for Luke of what a Master Jedi looks like then leads Luke in the process of learning how to reach that goal.

Managing towards the Master means helping your employees get a vision of what mastering their position looks like then leading them towards achieving that goal. Instead of giving them a minimum set of requirements, you are casting a vision towards success.

The challenge of managing this way is that “the Master” might look different for each of your employees. Instead of a one-size-fits-all set of requirements, you must tailor your approach for each individual. The way you accomplish this is to first determine the career goal for each employee. As a personal example, if I have an employee that has a goal of being a manager one day, I first begin by giving them an image of what a great manager looks like. Once I have done that, I work on how they can begin learning and incorporating those skills and abilities in their current role. I find ways in which they can learn leadership skills or problem resolution skills in their currently assigned tasks. Through the process, we are constantly referring back to what a great manager looks like and how that employee is progressing on that path.

Managing your employees in this way is much more time consuming but there are benefits in managing this way. First, your employees see that you care about them and their career and not just the results you are trying to achieve. This can drastically improve your relationship with your employees.

Second, employees begin working from an internal motivation which leads to more productivity. Setting rules is trying to motivate by fear, the fear of the consequences if the rules are not followed. When employees are motivated by fear it can lead to lower performance and dissatisfaction.

Finally, unlike the tour guide, the constant policing of the rules begins to fade and you can put that time back into other more productive management activities. Now that your employees have work goals that are based upon their own career goals, they begin to police themselves.

Stop for a minute and take a look at the requirements you place on your employees. Are they a list of minimum job requirements? Are your employees not exceeding your expectations? If you truly want the best performance out of your employees, it is time to adjust the way you manage them. Ditch that list of minimum job requirements and develop a plan with them to help them become a Master in their career.

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