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I recently celebrated my 51st birthday and reflected on the many things I’ve learned since my first startup.
Most of my learning has come from two places—the wisdom of others intended to help me avoid mistakes and the many mistakes I made despite all their wisdom. The opportunity to practice resiliency that comes from overcoming mistakes is priceless. I’ve seen firsthand that the most challenging mistakes are the ones that involve other people.
My experience is that solving most big problems requires a team of people rallying together to figure out how to both imagine and execute solutions. The execution is often where challenges begin between people, even those dedicated and committed to the mission.The greatest anxiety, frustration and stress often come down to one thing: expectations.
I’ve seen many scenarios unfold over and over again; here are the top four:
1. Not setting expectations
This is the most common culprit of conflict between individuals or teams: not setting expectations in the first place.
“We met last week about the new campaign. We agreed when the new campaign would kick off. Then today, I got copied on an email to the client, and the date was way earlier. I’m so annoyed.”
Did anyone document what was agreed to? Who circulated expectations to confirm a shared understanding? Were the client communications expectations discussed and documented?
It’s easy to see how this can happen. Two colleagues assumed they were on the same page. But without an actual page, it’s easy for things to go awry.
2. Implied expectations
This one trips me up all the time and comes in two flavors. Let’s look at the leader disruptor version first.
“The reason I missed this deadline is that our CEO asked me to dig into some metrics on this other project, and it took longer than I expected. I thought an executive’s request was more important and prioritized accordingly.”
This scenario is the leader’s fault—there’s an implied expectation that because a senior leader made a request, it’s urgent and takes precedence. As leaders, we should clearly set expectations—especially for individual contributors who might not know to ask about priority. I’ve gotten better with this, but it still gets me every so often.
The other flavor is hyper-accountable vs. accountable-accountable.
“They know how important the project is to the company. I’ve talked about it in meetings every week. I gave them feedback on their draft immediately. They’ve got everything ready to launch, but the program is still not live. I’m so frustrated.”
Are they bought in? How much does this project align with their goals? Are dates set, documented, and acknowledged by everyone involved? How is the team prioritizing other projects against this one?
The reason I see this as hyper-accountable is that one side is so accountable to everyone around them (an awesome trait) that they assume everyone else is also the same hyper-accountable, and they can’t understand why they are not. The fix is for the hyper-accountable to step back and consider the overall priorities—in addition to what they are most committed to—and adjust their expectations accordingly.
3. Managing expectations
Any project that involves multiple contributors and multiple meetings are likely to change. If expectations have been set and everyone’s agreed to them, things are off to a good start. But then the universe throws a wrench into the mix.
“They just told me that we’re not going to launch for another month. Apparently, this was decided two weeks ago because of a technical gap, but I’m just finding out about it now. I am so defeated.”
How to avoid this mistake is obvious when you see it, but unfortunately, it is also so easy to fall into. In a rush to solve a problem, we often forget to manage and reset expectations.
Are there stakeholders that would benefit from an update? Perhaps a board member who asked a question about a particular project that is now delayed. Are you going to wait a few weeks until the next board meeting, or should you update them sooner?
4. Communicating expectations
One of my co-founder’s favorite quotes is by George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
We’re all living with information overload constantly. It can be hard to figure out which email, Slack or text message is important and which can wait. Even if you do consume it all, how much are you really retaining—especially if it isn’t immediately relevant to you?
“I sent a long, comprehensive Slack update, shared the slide deck with the team…asked for their review and feedback, but no one got back to me. They’re saying they didn’t know about this policy change and that we never tell them anything. I am perplexed.”
There’s a combination of problems here, but the biggest is ensuring that what’s communicated is actually being consumed and acknowledged. If you aren’t sure, ask. It’s a bit more work, but it tends to destress the situation.
How does the team prefer to learn new information or participate in decisions? Do they want to be walked through the change and given the opportunity to ask questions live?
The expectation test
When I’m observing a conflict unfolding, I do my best to assess with an expectation test. Does everyone have the same set of expectations? How would I—or they—know? If the answer is anything other than a resounding “yes,” it’s time to probe and see where the expectations may not exist, be weak, not be managed or be impacted by a communications issue. If you’re looking to defuse conflict, start with an expectation test and go from there.