Your employee missed expectations? I blame you.

Originally posted on LinkedIn

Written by Mel Lewis

May 22, 2019

Ouch. I saw something that looked like a performance problem and went straight to finger-pointing. Tell me, how did it feel to be blamed for something that isn’t completely under your control? Did you think, “Hey, wait a minute – that’s not fair! What makes you think I’m at fault? You didn’t even look into the situation before holding me accountable!” You’re right. I didn’t investigate first.

Now, as a manager, think about when you see something that looks like a performance problem. Is your first instinct to assume the employee is at fault and then hunt down the offender? If it is, STOP for a moment. Remember how you felt when I did the same to you. Remember the questions you asked me – and consider the need to investigate first.

Why investigate? Because a gap between performance and expectations might not be the employee’s fault. Is it reasonable to hold an employee accountable for missing an expectation if there is no documented expectation, no training that aligns with the expectation, and no confirmation that the employee understands and can meet the expectation? Even if these exist, STOP and INVESTIGATE: the performance gap could be due to a number of causes, including:

Training Gap

A long gap between the day training took place and the day the employee attempted to meet the expectation. People don’t remember things forever; the employee may need a job aid or reinforcement training. Rats, I should have thought about a job aid when I set the expectation!

Conflicting Expectations

A conflict between this expectation and another, such that it may not be possible to meet both at the same time. A call center example: “try to resolve the customer’s issue before ending the call” vs. “avoid long hold times by ending your call quickly and answering the next”. Consider a job aid or training to help the employee know how to handle expectation conflicts. Hmm, I should have included these, too, when I set the expectation.

Employee Unaware

The employee not realizing the expectation is being missed. Did we set an expectation without a way for the employee to monitor and self-correct?

Performance Issue

The employee not taking the expectation seriously. Now it’s time for coaching, a performance improvement plan, or termination if it is a repeat behavior. Perhaps at the time I set the expectation I forgot to explain and document the consequences of not meeting it?

Notice that employee accountability is last in the list, and the gap still might not be 100% employee-caused. It’s the first place to go if it’s the only place to go. Odds are it isn’t unless you are one heck of a thorough expectation-setter. Even I’m not, and I know better. So, to help us both, let’s revise my original list of “expectation setting requirements”. Now we need these:

  • A documented expectation, including success measures and consequences for not meeting the expectation
  • A method for the employee to monitor performance and self-correct
  • Training, including job aids and guidance for handling expectation conflicts
  • Confirmation of understanding and ability

Do we really have to do all of this up front? It depends on the expectation and risk/cost related to not meeting it. I’d be more thorough if the expectation is shared by many people. If it’s just a few, and the impact is low, I may take a chance and just investigate later. With practice and a repeatable methodology (e.g., templates), preparation may prove to be the most efficient approach.

Now go point your fingers at your keyboard instead of your employee and document those expectations!