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Understanding The Power Of Expectations

Leadership expectations and employee potential

A few weeks ago, my oldest daughter and I were watching one of our favourite dramas when a scene came along that spurred on a conversation about leadership and the expectations we have about those we work for.

The scene in question revolved around one of the main characters who in his new job as a sous-chef had spent the past few days cutting over 40 pounds of potatoes into paper-thin slices. When the head chef – the main character’s boss – walks into the kitchen, the sous-chef points to the heaping bowl of potato slices on his station and tells the head chef he’s completed his task.

The head chef takes a quick look at the potato slices and tells his sous-chef that it looks like he finally got the hang of it near the end. The head chef then takes the large bowl of potato slices and tosses them in the garbage.

As his sous-chef starts to blurt out his exasperation at seeing days of his work being tossed away, the head chef pulls him over to another cutting board and takes out an odd looking vegetable. He then tells his sous-chef to slice the vegetable using the same technique he used with the potatoes.

After making a few paper-thin slices, the head chef picks up a slice and tells his sous-chef that the odd-looking vegetable is a white truffle that goes for over $1000.00/pound.

The head chef then tells his sous-chef that cooking is an art – that to succeed at it, you need more than dedication and precision, you need something innate; something he sees in his new sous-chef. And that’s why he wanted his sous-chef to cut all those potatoes – so he could develop his innate skills in order to better learn the techniques involved in classic culinary prep work.

After seeing the interplay between this boss and his new employee, my daughter – who for the past few weeks has been sending out resumes for summer job positions – looked at me and said ‘I want to work for a boss like that’.

Her reaction was not surprising – after all, who wouldn’t want to work for a boss who recognizes our innate potential and provides us with the guidance and support to help develop that potential?

Unfortunately, I met my daughter’s hopeful enthusiasm with a discouraging reply, pointing out how it’s a rare occurrence to work for a boss who encourages the growth of their employees.

Now granted, it is important to provide children with a realistic world-view of what’s awaiting them out there in the real world. And yet, at the same time, I realized that this conversation shines a light on the bigger issue of the gap between what we expect from those in leadership positions and what we actually experience working under their guidance.

In their book, “Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces”, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner discuss findings from their research which revealed that a leader’s behaviour is the primary driver for engagement in today’s organizations. In other words, the expectations we engender around our leadership has a direct influence on how motivated our employees are to bring their best selves to the work they do.

What’s more, the Harvard Business Review recently published an article that discussed findings of a study where 195 global leaders were asked to rate the importance of 74 leadership qualities in order to identify the Top 10 leadership competencies needed to guide today’s organizations. Coming in at number 3 on that list was “clearly communicates expectations”.

It’s clear then that the expectations we create through our leadership has a tangible impact on our employees’ productivity and their willingness to do more than what’s expected of them.

So why then do so many of us still see truth in the commonly shared adage that employees don’t leave bad organizations, they leave bad bosses?

The easy answer is that for many of us – myself included – our past experiences working under various bosses has lowered the expectations we have of those who lead. That it’s unrealistic to expect that every leader we choose to work for will be interested in managing the expectations of those under their care by trying to understand how to inspire and motivate their employees to do great work.

And yet, the fundamental problem here is that in accepting this notion, we give permission for mediocrity to take hold in today’s organizations. Given the findings reported in the Harvard Business Review, leaders everywhere are certainly aware of this and want to do something about it. So how then do we bridge this divide in order to understand the underlying motivations that create our expectations and drive our behaviours?

The simple truth is that when we pay attention to how we show up to lead others, of how we engage with them, and how we can help them to succeed under our care, we serve to inform others of not only what to expect from us, but how we can help them to thrive under our leadership.

In other words, inspiring employees to do more requires giving them opportunities to learn what they can achieve [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter], and in the process what they can become going forward.

A lot has been written about organizational culture and values in terms of how do we define them; of what organizational ingredients we need to list as part of our collective identity in order to inspire people to be engaged in the shared purpose of our organization.

And yet, as many of us have come to recognize from our own experiences, our organizational culture and values are not simply messages you frame on the wall. Rather, they are emblematic of both why we do what we do, and what employees should expect from us in terms of how we will guide and support them to become full contributors to that vision.

Again, go back to what my daughter said about the kind of boss she hopes to work for. She doesn’t want someone whose charismatic, or successful, or a ‘rock star’. Instead, she wants to work for someone who will inspire her; who will challenge her to push herself because they demonstrate that belief in her potential to evolve and grow.

And therein lies the key to understanding the power of expectations that will drive employee success – the secret to engaging employees is that we need to make the work be about them and not about us [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

We need to create conditions and provide a vision or shared purpose that compels people to step up, to want to take responsibility for their own growth because they see the benefit not just for themselves, but for the larger purpose to which they are committing their efforts, talents, and insights to.

Over the past few months, various management and leadership publications – and even certain media outlets – have drawn attention to the fact that the Millennials now make up the largest segment of employees in today’s organizations and that their numbers will continue to grow in the years ahead.

Irrespective of any type of generational stereotyping you might have read about this generational cohort, what this fundamentally means is that organizations are now employing more people at the start of their work careers than those who are either established in their career path or in the twilight years of their career journey.

And this means now more than ever leaders will have to address the expectations their employees have – not just in terms of their organization’s shared purpose, but of their leadership as well – as this will have an even greater impact on their ability to inspire, motivate, and engage those they lead to bring their best selves to the work they do.

As my daughter’s comments revealed, employees want to work for leaders who care about more than just getting things done. Indeed, people want to work with leaders who see their true potential and want to help them to achieve it [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

To put it another way, if we want our employees to be passionate, motivated, and driven each and every day they show up to work, then we need to ensure that we are fuelling the expectation that we will be as passionate, motivated and driven each and every day in helping to bring out the best in those we lead.

These days, when it comes to talking about the rising number of women in today’s workforce, there’s a lot of attention – and rightly so – on addressing the issue of equal pay.

After this conversation with my oldest daughter, it’s my hope that we also begin to understand the power of expectations that revolve around today’s leadership and how it can help leaders to enable those under their care to do their life’s work.


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