Expectation vs. Agreement: Make Them Promise!

I often hear managers complain about how their expectations are not being met by their teams.  I hear all kinds of professionals complain about their staff, or their clients.  They’re expecting a certain result or behavior, and they’re not getting it.

The problem is in their reliance on expectationsManagement—of a team, of your staff, or even of clients—will always be accompanied by some disappointment in the performance of those you work with—that is, if performance is being measured against expectations.

Ron, a branch manager I’m working with, was disappointed in his agents.

“I gave my people a simple telephoning assignment on Monday along with a checklist, and when I asked them about it on Friday, only one of them had done the work, and none of them had turned in a checklist,” Ron told me.  “When I tell them what to do on Monday, I expect that they’ll do it and turn in the report on Friday.  Is that too much to ask?”

“No, of course not.  But what was the agreement?” I asked Ron.

Ron hesitated, confused.  “There wasn’t any AGREEMENT,” he replied.  “Most of them have been with me for years.  They know what I expect of them.”

“Maybe they do, and maybe…they don’t,” I suggested.

I explained to Ron that Management by Expectation has a lot of holes in it.  The details of what is expected may not be clear, even when you are certain they’re perfectly implicit.  The door is still open to excuses about why the job couldn’t be done.  And, most importantly, no one has actually agreed to do it.

By contrast, Management by Agreement turns a vague, one-sided expectation into specific promises.  In Ron’s case, it might look something like this:

“I’m giving you all this calling assignment and a checklist.  I’d like to know that all ten calls have been completed by Friday of this week, so please turn in your checklists to me that morning by 10 AM.  All ten lines should be filled out with useful information on the calls you made.  This is an important project for all of us.  Do you all agree?  Jane?  Pete?  Mark?  Does everyone understand exactly what’s being asked of him or her?  Any questions?  Great; so completed call assignments will be on my desk by 10 AM this Friday morning.  If there’s any reason any of you can’t complete it by then, or if you need any help from me or anyone else on the team to make sure that it gets done, please let me know today.”

“That’s a lot of work for something so simple,” Ron complained, “But I’ll try it next week.  I have another project like this one coming up.”

Two weeks later, Ron and I talked about his result.  “All of them, except the one guy who was out for three days, did exactly as I asked,” he confided, “And the one who was out came back in on Friday and asked if it was okay if he turned his in on Tuesday.”

Unlike Management by Expectation, Management by Agreement includes all of the following insurances against disappointment:

1. Specific details, including what needs to be done, by when, and how it (or progress on it) is to be presented, along with a request for confirmation that the details are clear.

2. A request for a verbal agreement and an upfront discussion about anything that might prevent the project’s completion, with an opportunity to negotiate different terms, if necessary.

3. An offer to provide any help that might be needed along the way.

Agreements are based on promises—a type of commitment.  Since failure to do the job is now the breaking of a promise, not just a failure to live up to your expectation, it is much less likely to occur.

You can always discuss consequences for breaking the next promise.  Let the team member come up with his own “punishment”.  I had one client agree that if he violated our agreement he would give me a $1,000 check payable to the campaign of the political candidate he hated the most.  Another agreed to jump into his swimming pool in a suit.

Years ago, one of my clients agreed that if he interrupted someone else at an office meeting again, he would run down the street in front of the office wearing nothing but his “tighty whities”.  By his account, he’s only interrupted once since then.

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What works for managing team members and staff works for handling just about anyone, including your clients.  Don’t expect a certain action from them.  Have them agree to it.

Now, think up a failure consequence, and promise me you’ll keep REACHING…

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