Expectations are a funny thing. Often they are completely reasonable, such as with the rules of the road. You expect that everyone will stop at the red light and go on the green…and speed up on that yellow. Other times our expectations can be a little bit “off.” Does anyone really believe that a “miracle” weight loss pill is the “secret the fitness industry doesn’t want you to know”? As a matter of fact, yes. Millions of people spend billions of dollars on such “secrets” each year in the belief that chemistry can replace hard work.
Expectations, however, are an important feature of the human psychology. They are mental “leaps of faith” that allow for a mostly smooth functioning daily life. If we had no expectation that people would obey traffic signals, there would be a lot more chaos on the road. If we didn’t form expectations, the future would be a dark, faceless place filled with uncertainty. In many ways, expectations drive behavior. When we “expect” a result, we begin to act in a manner that promotes that outcome. Problems only arise when expectations are either not realistic or when two people doing the same thing each have expectations for a different outcome. There is, of course, a business application for this, but let me first provide a personal illustration.
About twenty years ago, me and the first Mrs. Esposito were preparing for the birth of our second son. I was a young, inexperienced man, but I soon learned that there is a law of nature and maternal nesting that states that one must re-paint a perfectly fine nursery for the birth of each child. I also discovered that expectant mothers can differentiate between shades of baby blue paint that look identical to an ignorant father. So paint selected, I went about the task of repainting a room in a suspiciously identical shade of baby blue that I had painted it, just 36 months earlier. Eager to be done, but smart enough to have the “boss” approve the work, I proudly called in the former Mrs. Esposito in for her final inspection. I knew there was trouble when I was met with silence. The slight draw of her lips, the small creases on her forehead all forewarned of dissatisfaction.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Umm, I don’t know,” she answered, hands resting on her belly to remind me that she was doing all the “real” work these days. I almost said, “well it’s the same damn color as the last time so what’s not to like,” but I was young not completely stupid.
“I don’t think you used enough paint. It looks a little uneven.”
Since I could not see the “alleged” unevenness, I simply nodded and applied another coat to the entire room.
The second inspection did not go much better.
“I don’t know,” she said “I thought it would be brighter.”
“Isn’t that the lamp’s job?” I thought but sighed and said, “Maybe a different color then.”
“No,” she answered. “I like this color.”
Well apparently not, but I wasn’t looking for an argument. I just wanted to be able to check the work off my to-do list.
“So what do you want me to do?” I pushed, a little annoyed. “Should I paint it again? Try a new color? Maybe buy another lamp?” Okay the last slipped out.
She just continued to stare at the walls and then the tears surfaced. This was dangerous territory. For a husband, the potential predicament of a crying and pregnant spouse is like an ocean’s riptide—you’re far better to avoid it then try to swim out of it.
I summoned my most calm, understanding and gentle tone and said, “Just tell me what is wrong honey and I will fix it. Is it too blue, not blue enough?”
In answer to my question the brimming tears became a full rainfall. In ignorance I said, “Maybe you don’t like blue.”
“No,” she said. “That’s not it.”
“Then what is it?”
“I wanted a girl,” she cried.
So expectations are a funny thing. I could have spent weeks on that room. I could have summoned the spirits of Michelangelo and Picasso to assist me in the painting, but that baby blue color was never going to satisfy the expectations of a young mother who had hoped for a pink room and a baby girl.
Thankfully, in business, expectation management is never so extreme. Although they can certainly be just as misaligned. Many times we create rules, processes and programs but we fail to communicate the real goal behind these things. Many times we place great effort on one thing, but our partners place greater value on another.
I’ve sat in consultations with LP Directors under fire by Operations because “we don’t have enough internal cases” or “we don’t catch enough shoplifters.” These aren’t, of course, the real expectations and usually not the real complaint. No company wants “more” internal theft cases because that means they have “more” internal theft. What they want is a fix to the problem of high shrink. The case counts are simply a “fact” that is pointed to when the shrink or loss results don’t meet expectations.
Expectation management is probably as important and perhaps more important then the particulars of any process. Communication that is clear and direct is the best way to align those expectations. And a good set of questions is the best way to clarify that communication. In loss prevention, people often jump to a program solution without considering if it will actually provide what they expect it to provide. If, for example, a company expects an audit to predict or correlate to shrink then they can’t include questions that are not related to shrink or that in some way skew the results—like if employees are wearing name tags or fire extinguishers are serviced properly. If a company thinks their big issue is shoplifting, but that analysis is based on purely antidotal evidence (managers say they have “a lot”), the expectations of their shoplifting initiatives are going to be misaligned with the actual results. If a new father paints a room the perfect shade of blue, it’s not going to satisfy a mother’s hope for pink.
We can’t always satisfy our own or others expectations. In business, we may often face unreasonable expectations. We can however manage these “outcome thoughts” through an understanding of what people intend to achieve and by suggesting the best way for them to get there. The same is true for our own expectations. A recipe for failure begins with the assumption that others know what we want, why we want it, and how we would like it done.
Expectations are big things and they carry the equally large burden of communication. Whether we are meeting another’s expectation or asking someone to meet ours, clarity of mission and results is required. Sometimes clarity ensures we meet the expectations and at other times it helps everyone recognize the best compromise.
As for me, I painted that nursery a third time…in a lovely pastel green. We couldn’t change the gender of the baby, but a different color was a nice reminder that we weren’t having “another” boy, we were starting a different and wonderful journey with our new son.
So I’ll leave you with this quote from Robert McCloskey as a reminder that the first and most important step in expectation management are the challenges of clear communication.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Authored by: Ray Esposito
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