Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
There's an old saying that putting someone on a pedestal makes it a lot easier to get kicked in the head. I mention this because two years ago many voters put Barack Obama on a very high pedestal. Expectations went through the roof as crowds of people (even outside the U.S.) shouted that oft-repeated campaign slogan, "Yes we can!" For the first time in many years, Americans foresaw a president who would mobilize the nation to greatness. After the distress of the economic meltdown, Obama represented a fresh start, with new energy, excitement, and hope.
In less than two years, President Obama's approval rating has gone from 45% to under 30% while his "disapproval" index has climbed from 12% to 45%. And the seemingly solid legislative majority that ushered him in may fall apart after the November elections. Indeed, many voters feel as though they've been "kicked in the head."
Now in fairness to President Obama, almost every president for the past fifty years has fallen in the polls after the first half of his term. It's common for candidates to be elected by making inspiring promises and convincing voters that they can actually make good on them. In other words: Politicians intentionally create high expectations. The realities of governing, however -- the trade-offs, compromises, and frustrations -- dash cold water on those expectations. And despite any concrete accomplishments, often the disillusioned public tends to focus exclusively on what has not happened. The challenge for the president at this point is to alter the leadership role that he had two years ago: Instead of creating expectations, Obama needs to manage them. And his future success -- including whether he wins a second term -- may depend on how well he does that.
The same phenomenon occurs in organizations. New executives and managers often start their assignments with a platform of change; project initiators "sell" decision-makers on the benefits and returns of their proposals; stock analysts rate companies based on expectations created for them by the CFO; and consultants are hired because of what they promise. In other words, expectations are part of the currency of decision-making. Just like in an election campaign, if you convince the decision-makers (be they voters or hiring managers) that you can fulfill your promises, you get the job (or contract, investment, stock price, etc.). The challenge arises after you are "elected," and you can't follow through on all your campaign promises.
To reduce the risk of projecting higher expectations than you can deliver, here are three guidelines to keep in mind when creating those expectations in the first place:
Create an expectations map. Don't assume that all expectations are created equally, particularly when there are multiple stakeholders involved. For example, your new boss may be looking for different things than your new subordinates, peers, or customers. So before you commit, take a hard look at the array of expectations and whether they are aligned or contradictory.
Balance stretch with realism. To win a job or assignment you may have to convey a sense of excitement or promise to increase the decision-makers' confidence in your abilities. However, be careful not to over-sell. Think through what it will take to achieve your goals and fulfill expectations -- and be prepared to temper those expectations with reality. Decision-makers usually appreciate being told the truth if you do it the right way. For example, companies that announce mergers or acquisitions by talking about the challenges of integration, as well as the benefits, are usually rewarded with higher stock prices.
Manage expectations from beginning to end. Managing expectations is not something to do only after disappointment sets in, or when your numbers go down in the polls. Stay in touch with your stakeholders, keep them apprised of progress, and let them know about the problems you're encountering and the solutions you are trying. It's easier for people to deal with bad news when they know it's coming -- and may even help generate solutions. Surprises, on the other hand, will undermine confidence and make it even tougher to move forward.
There's a delicate balance between creating expectations that others will buy and expectations that you can actually fulfill. And if the gap is too great -- as it has become with President Obama -- then you run the risk of having your reputation (or that of your company) plummet in the eyes of your original supporters.
What's your experience with creating and managing expectations?
Follow Ron Ashkenas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SchafferResults