If managing underperformance is one of the greatest challenges for first-time managers, then dealing with unrealistic expectations might be its frustrating younger cousin.
In some cases, it’s even harder to pin the problem down.
With underperformance, it’s often due to a specific behaviour you can point to and work on. His internal communication isn’t good enough which means we’re missing deadlines. The quality of her analysis isn’t sharp enough so clients aren’t getting value from our products. These are things that you can try and fix.
But ‘I’m unhappy because this job isn’t what I thought it would be’. That’s harder.
It can also translate into disgruntled team members trying to drag otherwise happy colleagues into their well of disappointment. Things can get pretty toxic. We’ve seen it happen.
Often by that point it’s too late.
This is one of the lessons from the latest blog post by Katie Wilde, a VP of Engineering at Buffer. In it, she reflects on where misaligned expectations between her and certain team members about their role led to toxic situations and ultimately resignations.
She pinpoints four areas where you can work to get on the same page:
Recruitment: this is your first opportunity to set expectations. Yes, you want to promote your company and attract talent, but you also want to make sure you’re not over-selling, particularly in areas where there might be friction. Wilde says she asks what frustrates people at work, and if some of those dynamics exist at Buffer, she’s open about it, so the candidate can make an informed decision if that’s a deal-breaker for them.
Onboarding: if you want to help a team member successfully navigate your organisation, you’re going to need to tell them about any messy parts, and the workarounds people use to get stuff done. Onboarding is a good time to do this. For example, Wilde says she’s been open with new hires about a reorg that’s going on and how to work through that.
Setting boundaries: letting people know what behaviours are and aren’t appropriate on your team can be difficult and could take up a whole post on its own. If you’ve hired well there won’t be too many of these conversations, but you may have to intervene if you see something that’s not ok. Wilde uses the example of a team member constantly using team meetings to vent publicly about her issues. In these instances, timely feedback to set boundaries is essential.
Teaching ‘disagree and commit’: as a manager you won’t always be able to solve every problem for every team member, or agree with them on every issue. You have multiple team members’ interests to balance with those of your company. When an issue is beyond your control, or you’ve prioritized someone/thing else over a team member, you need to be clear about it, explain why, and ask them to commit to moving forward. Or if they can’t, consider whether the team/company is the right fit for them. Continually disappointing someone by failing to solve issues beyond your control, or letting those issues fester, is a recipe for disaster.