Here’s a situation that may feel like déjà vu to some. You have just concluded a difficult conversation with Tim, one of your software developers; while Tim works hard, he is certainly not your best developer.
Yet, he just left your office wondering why he has not been given a raise in the last four months. The irony? Tim has only been with your organization for five. You slowly exhale, wondering how in the world you ended up with that set of unrealistic expectations.
Your immediate answer is that Tim is a millennial, and that’s just what millennials do, right? Well, check your privilege at the door. The real reason is that we, as leaders, have become lazy in one critical area. We fail to properly align expectations from the beginning. One of my business partners teaches that when it comes to certain key conversations, do not communicate in order to be understood; rather, communicate so that you will not be misunderstood. In fairness, I think he was paraphrasing President William Howard Taft.
My other business partner takes a more academic approach. His view is that in the absence of carefully explained employer expectations, it’s the employee’s expectations that will take over and control the relationship.
He’s right. Aristotle is credited with the notion that nature abhors a vacuum. The same holds true with relationships, whether business or personal. When there is a lack of expectations, then the parties will find some to use, regardless of whether they are fair, rational, related, or even intended.
So, back to my story. It isn’t because Tim is a flannel-shirt-wearing, bushy-bearded millennial. The reason is you! When Tim came on board, it was probably done in a rush. Your fast-growing start-up couldn’t seem to find enough qualified developers. You were just thankful he showed up at the appointed time and was ready to work. You gave him a stitched-together employee handbook your sister-in-law copied from the credit union where she works, and you had him sign a non-compete agreement you found on the internet. That’s good enough, right? You, then showed him to a desk in your offices, and you moved on to the next fire smoldering in your inbox.
What you didn’t realize is that you gave him a seat next to David, your star developer who happens to be employee #3 in your organization. David was promoted three times during his first six months. Mostly because David is talented and deserved it, but once because there was no one else to take the job. Now that you think about it, it’s fairly easy to see where Tim might have gotten the impression that promotions and pay raises happen frequently around your place.
So, there you are–– stuck with Tim’s expectations simply because you failed to carefully define your own. Imagine, if you will, that you had taken an additional ten minutes with Tim on his first day. You could have explained to him that you do not consider promotions or pay raises within the first year. You tell him that you want to take that time to really see what he will bring to the table. Not only did you just give yourself some runway to work with, but you also gave Tim a reason to stay motivated and hungry for a reasonable period of time.
My scenario with Tim doesn’t just happen in tech start-ups. It happens with seasoned HR managers, as well. Too often we fail to think about and then define our critical expectations. This means that we will likely have to deal with the other side’s unilateral expectations in the future, whether we like them or not.
My point with all of this is that good leaders take the time to ensure that expectations are properly aligned, ideally from the beginning. This includes employee relationships, but it also applies to other areas, such as mergers and acquisitions, system implementations, changes in strategy, and various other scenarios. Good outcomes in business usually begin with expectation alignment, whereas bad outcomes are often created or made worse by unmet expectations.
In summary, take the time to align expectations. It’s worth it! And, millennials will thank you for treating them like the adults they are.