I am going to make an unqualified claim: nearly all organizations, leaders, managers and individual contributors suffer from a serious condition known as expectation asymmetry disorder (EAD).
Evidence of this debilitating disease is visible everywhere. Here are some common examples:
- An entrepreneur clings to her belief that everyone will love her new product, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
- The head of production at a manufacturing facility believes his supply chain is rock solid; and so, he promises to fulfill a large, multi-year purchase order.
- A line manager, seeking to make a new hire, is sure the newcomer will not require the training that most individuals need.
- A top leader of an organization sees her workforce as entitled and unproductive.
Expectation asymmetry disorder is evidenced by expectation gaps. Expectation gaps occur when one party in a relationship believes the other person will do something. Here's an example.
Let's say Robert believes Pamela is going to do something, when she actually has no intention of acting as Robert believes and does not tell him. Or let's pretend Pamela is unaware of Robert’s full set of expectations and unknowingly fails to perform as expected.
EAD manifests itself everywhere, from mature organizations to dysfunctional taco stands. Even more troubling is that expectation gaps exist at every level within an organization and within every function or division. EAD is pervasive, systemic and chronic. Like coronary heart disease, most don’t realize they have a problem until it’s too late.
Our research strongly suggests that expectation gaps are serious impediments to productivity and efficiency within any organization, including non-business organizations such as families, community groups, governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and the like. Nothing impedes progress within people-dependent organizations more than expectation asymmetry.
This definition may be a bit hard to digest on the first pass. A real world example should clarify what I am saying. It comes from the accounting world.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) has identified one of its expectation gaps as “the difference between what the public… believe[s] auditors are responsible for and what auditors themselves believe their responsibilities are.”
Sometimes the public, and even executives within a company, believe that auditors will find everything that’s wrong within an organization.
The auditors; however, are quick to point out that they have a limited supply of resources and time. Not to mention, they have limited access to people, information and facilities; therefore, they can’t possibly be expected to uncover every potential issue. This is a real gap that is fraught with potential liability – just think Enron.
It goes without saying that expectation gaps are fertile ground for disputes, and they disguise and distort latent defects and conceal risks.
The good news is that there is cure for EAD. We call it expectation symmetry.
Expectation alignment is achieved when both parties work diligently to match their expectancies as best as possible; and this applies not just to the written words printed on a contract. Each party seeks to align their psychological, or unspoken, expectations as well.
The following six elements are needed for expectation equilibrium to exist.
Fairness is a commitment to finding what is fair and equitable for both parties, and the parties honor both the word and spirit of the agreement. This concept hearkens back to a time when deals were done on a handshake and a man’s word was his bond. Some consider Warren Buffet’s leadership as an example of fairness that is still practiced today. Another word for this element of fairness is integrity.
Clarity is not found. Clarity is built by taking the time to understand the other party’s point of view. As Dr. Stephen R. Covey said, it’s about seeking first to understand, before seeking to be understood. Clarity is building an agreed-upon set of assumptions that form the basis for the deal or the relationship (i.e., the primary assumptions). It’s about identifying why each party wants to do the deal or establish the relationship and what they hope to gain from it. Also, it's about identifying the concerns and limitations each party brings to the table.
Empathy is not just merely seeing the world from another’s point of view (that’s clarity). It’s also about seeing the value that exists in others’ viewpoints. It’s the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and to see and feel their emotions as they consider the upside, the risks and the fears, which are all part of forming a deal or a relationship. By taking the time to empathize with one another and see eachother as real people, the likelihood of alignment between expectations significantly increases.
You need to approach the relationship in a consistent manner. This doesn’t mean you never change your mind, but it does mean that you owe the other party an explanation when you do.
It also means you do not change the primary assumptions that form the basis of the original agreement. These are the assumptions that were identified through a focus on clarity (see above).
You honor the primary assumptions and recognize how they are foundational to the deal, even if you might win a short-term gain by arguing the assumptions.
Predictability means that you treat similar circumstances in a consistent manner. You are steady in your approach as opposed to haphazard. You recognize the need for predictability by the other party, and you provide it as an element of courtesy and respect.
While transparency might appear to be the same thing as clarity, it is different enough to justify treating it separately.
With clarity you seek to understand the other party’s basic assumptions, and you share your assumptions too.
Transparency is about disclosure while clarity is about understanding the psychological expectations. Transparency is making sure there are no skeletons in the closet that need to be dealt with. With transparency you don’t hold back from sharing information that might impact the deal in one way or another.
In other words, you don’t hide anything. You are open and candid about anything that, if it were disclosed, would have a material impact on the relationship or the deal that is being forged.
This is owning the deal you made at the time and in the context of the primary assumptions. This is about following the deal that both parties intended and not seeking the deal you want now that you have the benefit of hindsight.
When these six elements exist, expectation equilibrium is achieved, and we have a cure for EAD. More importantly though, as we work through the mechanical process of cultivating these six elements, muscle memory is built and we create within our organizational cultures what is commonly referred to as trust.