Aug 29 / Jackie Kennedy

Managing Expectations During Exponential Change

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to manage people's expectations?

I used to think it was easy - ask x if they can help solve y, clearly communicate the end goal (the required output) and discuss the following:

Who
What
Where
When 
How…

Now don’t get me wrong, covering the above is still somewhat useful but let’s unpack how things may still get muddled even when you tick all those boxes. Read the example of Adam below and see if you relate to this…

When Adam first joined his company, he experienced a smooth onboarding process that included clear training and comprehensive discussions about his role's expectations. He felt confident in his responsibilities and understood how his work contributed to the team's success. 

However, as the pace of change within the company and all around him accelerated, Adam's role began to evolve rapidly. New projects were introduced, and expectations shifted. Adam found himself navigating these changes without the same level of guidance and feedback he had initially received. In fact, he felt like the goal posts kept changing (that’s because they were).

Adam gradually lost sight of his main responsibilities and how they aligned with the company's evolving goals. The absence of continuous communication left him feeling uncertain, isolated and struggling to keep up with the shifting demands. Eventually, Adam's performance started to suffer and he received feedback that he was prioritising the wrong projects and wasn’t keeping up with current strategies.

Was it Adam’s responsibility to speak up sooner and ask for more clarity? Or was it the leader’s responsibility to better communicate and schedule check-ins? Perhaps the responsibility was on both sides? Or was there more to this story?

Without clear direction Adam had started making assumptions about what to prioritise. We all have preferences and so did Adam. Instead of checking he just started focusing on things he preferred doing to the things that needed to be done. He liked doing things the way they had always been done and to be honest, didn't really want to embrace the change that was unfolding around him. Adam also had a fear of asking for help or direction so he chose not to speak up. To make matters worse he had a limiting belief about his ideas and didn’t think they were that great so chose not to share them. Because he didn’t speak up, the leader assumed that Adam knew what to work on and how to get it done. This is such a common set of compounding factors that we see over and over in companies, especially in ones that are growing exponentially. 

Managing expectations is a lot about assumption management.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in. Remember, we see the world not as it is but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions.”

In a world of complexity and exponential change expectation management is no longer what it used to be. In today’s world I would argue that it’s less about the original ‘required output’ and more about the process. Let’s face it, the original required output is probably not going to be what it was at the start of the project.

I would argue instead of expectation management we need continuous conversations that require empathy, curiosity, enquiry, awareness and adaptability. It is a shared responsibility that extends to both leaders and team members and it’s about a set of future-fit soft skills. While leaders are responsible for setting the tone and influencing a workplace culture. They need to create a psychologically safe space that values open communication, where individuals feel empowered to ask for help, seek guidance, share ideas and challenge each others' thinking. 

Here are suggestions for managing expectations during exponential change:

• Try to understand the worldviews and backgrounds brought into the workspace - both your own and your team’s. This includes actively understanding, engaging, questioning and updating values, beliefs and assumptions. 

• Think about your organisational culture - how does it respond to change? Does change influence the process? How adaptable are you?

• Focus less on the outcomes and more on the process

• Use your organisational purpose and values to align around what is important and how you treat each other but realise that as you evolve these may need to too

• Remember the 3 C’s and K of Communication - Consistent in how you treat people, Continuous Conversations, Clear and Kind Schedule regular check-ins - conversations where you encourage enquiry, healthy debate and seeking to understand

• Discuss prioritisation of tasks to make sure you’re aligned around what is most important as things shift and evolve 

• Give advance notice and an agenda for discussions

• Foster an environment where open communication and continuous feedback are valued 

• Be proactive, don’t wait until the wheels have fallen off

• Slow down to go fast and create the space for deep thinking to determine whether the output is still relevant

• Communicate how you feel about changes - sharing how you feel about something helps create empathy and understanding in the process

• Speak up, ask for help and be solution-oriented

And remember, we all need to keep wiping our windows of assumptions clean in order to see the world through different lenses! If you’d like to continue this conversation on the future-fit skills required to lead at levels email me at [email protected]
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