Unexpected expectations

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

This month, I want to talk about professional expectations at work and about how expectations, if unaddressed, can lead to the overall loss of quality and dysfunctional teams.

The expectation is a strong belief that something will happen, it lives within you, and it is based on your view of the world and your experiences. 

Everyone has expectations; they are the result of our life experiences. It is essential to differentiate between personal and professional expectations. One should not allow personal expectations of family members, partners, friends, and society to define your life because everyone’s experiences and perspective are unique. However, some professional expectations are readily justifiable and even helpful in some circumstances. 

It is generally expected for a person applying for a particular position to have already the knowledge required to do the job. It is also generally expected that an employee can read, write and process information. And then, each profession has its own set of more specific expectations, focused on the qualities relevant for the job in question.

Whenever you are introduced to a newly hired colleague, the introduction itself already creates certain expectations in you. “Hello, this is Julia, she will be our new legal assistant” – and you immediately make a specific connection in your head. You would expect Julia to be good at drafting legal documentation, proficient in some law area and probably having a good eye for details. 

Suppose you are part of a specialised team. In that case, you have a detailed understanding of the necessary skillset and knowledge that your team’s area of speciality requires. Therefore, your expectations towards the new team member will be more explicit.

What happens if the new hire has utterly different quality standards than those the team habitually provides? Or worse – what happens to the synergies within the group when members realise the new person does not meet their basic professional expectations but are stuck with the person anyway?

Unmet expectations trigger judgement, frustration, misunderstanding, anger and disappointment. Someone who is a natural planner would be terrified of working together with a person who struggles to keep deadlines. A person with a structured and organised approach to the workspace and tasks on hand would be frustrated having to share the office with someone inspired by creative chaos on his working table and shared filing cabinet. And suppose the team in question is responsible for drawing architectural designs. In that case, they will have little understanding for the candidate with no advanced drawing software knowledge. In the same way, a team of waiters will be disappointed if a new team member cannot serve more than one table at a time. 

Unmet expectations lead to interpersonal tensions, misunderstandings and anger. In the long term, uneven team setup can lead to quality loss and dysfunctionality. 

Ideally, a person in charge of the hiring process would consider the team members’ expectations. In reality, job descriptions are rarely discussed with those doing the job. And even more rare are the situations when the recruitment process focuses on finding a specific skill set that would meet the expectations and fit the existing setup. 

Even if the recruiter formally did the job description, there is still a chance to address the team’s expectations – induction and probation.

If appropriately structured, induction would communicate to the new employee the team’s expectations he is starting to work.

The probation period, in turn, would allow all team members to open-mindedly and consciously work on finding the most effective mode of cooperation. 

Unfortunately, the induction and probation often are not what you’d expect neither. 

A typical induction at almost any office job will look something like this: you get your welcome package on your first day, a quick run through the office while being introduced to more colleague than you could be expected to remember, spend few hours reading through codes of conduct, brand manuals and similarly general documents, signing for some keys, setting up your office chair at the right height and staring into your brand-new laptop. If you are experienced enough already, you will frantically scribble some notes on your notepad (which will turn out to be unreadable the next day). Maybe you will set up your e-mail signature to brand standards.

The typical probation period is spent having coffees and lunches with new colleagues (aka getting to know each other), more reading of more manuals and guidelines, more learning-by-doing, more rules. 

If you are lucky, you might have a chat or two with the HR person or your supervisor (who will be too busy spending quality time with you most of the time) about how you feel about being here and how you think you are doing. The latest is hard to answer if your feedback is limited to “oh, this is not entirely how we do it, but you’ll get used to it once you have been with us a bit longer”, which is mostly the case.  

I believe managing expectations should be a big part of the working process. Also, whenever a new candidate is recruited for the already existing team, it is crucial to take the professional expectations of the team members into account when running the selection. The first advantage of such an approach would be ensuring every team member’s knowledge and skill base is comparable. It will also create a stronger sense of being an essential part of the company. 

I also believe that the recruitment process should be less formalised, especially with experienced candidates. Whenever out on the job market, I often feel that I am levelled down to whether my resume ticks all the formal boxes of education, previous knowledge and skills. I might see the reason for such an approach when someone is hiring a freshly-out-of-the-university junior team assistant (aka girl Friday or dogsbody). However, the same method used with experienced professionals leaves me filled with wonder.

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