Managing Expectations is a Crucial Leadership Responsibility

RBLP Staff – Building and Leading Resilient Teams Series

Managing Expectations is a Crucial Leadership Responsibility

Direct reports look to leaders not just for direction, but for redirection as well. When something goes awry with the original project plan, proper expectations for adapting to the new circumstances must be set before launching Plan A.

The importance of managing expectations for a team cannot be overstated. In this case, we’re not talking about individual expectations, but the building of a project roadmap that includes circumstance-driven alterations of the plan.

If you think of your team in terms of a sports team or military unit, the need for options should be immediately clear. A quarterback would never leave the huddle without a series of agreed-upon audibles to be called once the defense is set. A captain wouldn’t expect his troops to go into battle without a Plan B once the force and intensity of the enemy is revealed through combat.

In the same way, the effective leader manages expectations with the team well in advance of a project launch. It’s up to the leader to develop the “draft” operational manual, with step-by-step actions, timeline goals, a budget and so on. But then it’s time to kick the tires with the team.

Some managers are told not to explore what could go wrong with the plan. “Just implement it! It’s the perfect plan!” But those leaders won’t last long. You need to review the entire project proposal with your team. Together, you’ll identify as many points along the way as you can, where you’ll need to have a Plan B, and even a Plan C, ready to roll out.

This “what could go wrong” strategy does not indicate weakness or inherent flaws with the original proposal. It’s just sound management. Leaders who sense when the plan has gotten off course and quickly course-correct will win the trust and loyalty of their troops. The team will move in the new direction with confidence–because the strategic shift was outlined when expectations for the project were set.

Think of your game plan as a football game. You’re down at halftime, the running game isn’t working, the opponents are shedding your pass defense. But you’ve got that breather in the locker room to rally the troops. And, because you have prepared for just such a contingency, you dig into the play book. You find the right moves to offset weaknesses that the first half revealed in the game plan. Teams that stubbornly stick with what’s not working don’t get to the Super Bowl.

When managing expectations, experience with earlier projects will prove invaluable. If you are a newly minted leader, do not hesitate to draw on the experiences of the more senior of your direct reports. They have felt the pain of a failed endeavor. They will gladly share what they know about the many ways a Plan A can implode. Mentors outside the team, and even outside the company, will know where the stress fractures may occur.

Just keep in mind that no perfect Plan A has ever existed. The wise leader lets people know flexibility and adaptability are built into the process and are ready to be implemented when the need arises. Your leadership will be tested not so much by the process, as by the outcomes you deliver. Having contingency plans ready to go will ensure that you pass the test.