How To Know If Expectations Are Reasonable

I am frequently asked about goal setting and how to know if expectations are reasonable. The norm these days is long To Do lists and insufficient time. Managers push their employees hard, but don’t know what constitutes pushing too hard. Employees are proud and eager to be valuable and appreciated, but they feel stressed, are running full tilt, and often work late and on weekends. So how can anyone know what is realistic?

There is only one way to be sure expectations are reasonable and that way usually fails.

The only way to be sure expectations are reasonable is to set standards. This is easy to do when someone’s work can be measured in widgets per hour. Or haircuts per hour. Sales calls made, deals closed, articles written, bones set. You get the idea. If enough people are doing similar things with enough repetition, you can measure the best and the average to create standards. And then you can help those who are slower adopt the practices of those who are faster.

One word of warning, though. Use these measurements to identify and disseminate efficient and effective practices, not record-breaking quality disasters! Never make speed metrics more important than taking care of customers! You want satisfactory haircuts per hour, profitable deals closed, and bones successfully set!

Success by previous job holders is another type of standard. Assuming job responsibilities and obstacles haven’t changed, which could be a ridiculous assumption, a well-chosen new hire ought to be able to step in and perform comparably to previous people who successfully held the same position. If your former assistant managed everything in eight hours a day, it isn’t unreasonable to assume the right person could do likewise.

But many people do not work in jobs comprised of discrete, repetitive tasks. Nor do they step into an unchanged situation where demands were reliably met in eight hours. When no standards exist to measure how much someone is achieving and what is reasonable to expect from them, how can you know what is reasonable? You can’t.

You can’t

You can never really know if expectations are reasonable. I hate to dash your hopes of receiving that magic formula. It simply doesn’t exist. But you can change the question.

Individual Productivity

Individual productivity requires clarity, focus, and self-awareness.

Clarity: We are most productive when we have:

  • A clear understanding of what must be different when we are done
  • A clear method for getting it done
  • A clear sense of with whom we must work to get it done
  • And an expectation of finishing in a specific time period.

How often are your direct reports operating with this level of clarity?

Focus: Focus is essential. Are your employees proactively eliminating distractions, especially self-distraction?

Self-awareness: Individual productivity, a.k.a. time management, is really just personal management. You can’t manage time, you can only manage yourself. Self-awareness is the key to personal management. It is the secret to tackling tough tasks when your energy level is high and tackling energizing tasks when your energy level is low. It keeps you from wallowing in tasks you love, failing to regroup or seek help when you are wandering, and letting your perfectionism inflate every task. It lets you use “dessert” tasks as rewards when you’ve finished something you really dislike. It shames you into action when you’ve let procrastination get the best of you. And it tells you when you need a break to recharge your batteries. Are your direct reports honestly seeking greater self-awareness so they aren’t their own biggest obstacle? Or are they just letting the time slip away thanks to long standing habits?

Individual productivity is the responsibility of every employee. Supervisors should provide appropriate support and structure as they would with any other job responsibility. Are your employees consciously working on their personal productivity and growing their self-awareness? You should be able to tell. And you should be able to offer suggestions. What more could you expect? If you know, tell them. Either way, ask them. Just don’t expect undefined miracles.

Process Improvement

If processes and systems are ill-defined or onerous, even the most productive individuals suffer. Most any group or organization can benefit from:

  • Eliminating decision by creating standard methods (templates, scripts, procedures, decision criteria)
  • Sharing best practices
  • Simplifying processes
  • Removing obstacles

Many employees try to drive such improvements, but unclear roles and responsibilities often hamper their efforts. Clarify expectations and roles. Encourage collaboration. Are your employees working on process improvement? Again, you should be able to tell. What more could you expect? If you know, tell them. Either way, ask them. Just don’t expect undefined miracles.

Most Important of All

I don’t care how much pressure there is on you to make your group more productive, if your employees are working on themselves and trying to improve group processes, you have three obligations.

  1. Find ways to help them succeed.
  2. If anyone simply can’t cut it and isn’t going to succeed, you’ve got him or her in the wrong job. Do something about it!
  3. Most important of all, encourage your employees to go home feeling good about their day and all that they have accomplished.

There is simply no value in working hard and feeling bad about it. Even if you have a lot of improving to do! Tomorrow is another day. Take pride in what you have accomplished and always have a plan for getting better.

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