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Leadership & The Expectation Gap

Leadership & The Expectation Gap

When it comes to leadership, I can share the issues of creating and delivering on expectations are no small matter. In fact, understanding how to come out on the right-side of the expectation curve can often be the difference between being viewed as an average leader and one held in high regard. Let me make this as simple as I can; managing expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership. Moving the goal posts by arbitrarily raising and lowering expectations creates confusion, and is often an intellectually dishonest exercise. Aligning expectations doesn’t need to be difficult – set them, align them, stick to them, and execute on them.

Conflicts, disagreements, disputes, and litigation are often born out of expectation gaps. The thing leaders need to keep in mind is expectations cut both ways. Keeping what you perceive as being your end of the bargain is only half of the equation, as what you think only matters if it’s in alignment with the understanding of the other party. We have all found ourselves in the unenviable position of assigning work product only to end-up with the deliverable falling far short of expectations, while having the producer of said work product thinking they exceeded all expectations. I’ve often said, those leaders who fail to clearly communicate their expectations have no right to them.

Nothing engenders confidence and creates a trust bond like delivering on promises made, and likewise, few things erode confidence and credibility like commitments not kept. Leaders who deliver on promises quickly rise to the top, and those that fail to develop this skill won’t survive long.  The best leaders make a practice of saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and doing what they say they’ll do.

The science of aligning expectations is about systematically connecting what is said with what is done. The art of aligning expectations is about closing, or better yet, eliminating the expectation gap. Blend the art and science together and you have the framework for what is becoming the differentiating factor in performance based decisioning. Several years ago I created the Venn diagram depicted below to explain the confluence of factors that need to occur in order to close the expectation gap:

Expectations exist throughout the entire value chain, with every stakeholder needing and deserving to have their expectations understood and met (hopefully exceeded). Whether it is addressing customer expectations, board expectations, shareholder or analyst expectations, or the inverse situation of employees having to deal with the expectations of executives, it is the ability to excel at decisioning based upon setting, aligning and executing expectations that creates high performance organizations.

Promises made and consistently kept based upon solid reasoning and underlying business logic, will help to create a solid brand attracting loyal customers and talented employees. The following three practices will help create an organization that delivers on its commitments:

  1. Collaborate early and often: Decisioning in a vacuum, or without all the facts, will place you in a deficit from the beginning. It is at best extremely difficult to align expectations and deliver on commitments made if you don’t have clear visibility as to what is wanted or needed. Before making promises or commitments collaborate with all concerned parties to ensure that expectations are understood.
  2. Resist making verbal commitments: Most misunderstandings occur as a result of improper interpretation of oral communications. Most broken commitments result from impulsive verbal promises made before all the details were sorted out. Once you have gained clarity as to the perceived need to be fulfilled, place your understanding of the deliverables in writing by outlining key business points and circulate the document for review and comments. Where possible resist formalizing agreements, proposals, or other commitments until you have alignment on key expectations and deliverables.
  3. Treat promises like projects: Build a culture that breaks down all commitments into deliverables, benchmarks and deadlines. Allocate resources, budget and staff while delivering the commitment within a framework of measured accountability. Treating all commitments and promises as formal projects will help manage performance risk and will also create continuity of process and delivery.

Performance focused decisioning based upon principles of expectation alignment will lead to a certainty of execution that should translate into one of your company’s greatest competitive advantages. Top CEOs recognize that they can promise and deliver, under-promise and over-deliver, or even over-promise and deliver…they just don’t dare over-promise and under-deliver. Thoughts?

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    Ivars Er

    June 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Good post. I fully agree. Leader should set clear expectations and make sure that others are on same page. I have fired employee in my opinion of not meeting expectations, but after doing this I have realized that I didn’t explain my expectations clear enough. It was time to go home and feel bad, but we learn from mistakes.


      Mike Myatt

      June 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience Ivars – you’re not alone. That said, a mark of a good leader is being able to Learn from mistakes. Well done Sir.


    Devan Perine

    June 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm


    Love how you pointed out how “managing expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership” and the graph that goes with it. I think you’re right on par with how poor leadership is really about failure to meet expectations.

    Coming from an “others” point of view, I recently wrote a 2-part article on what leadership looks like from a follower’s stand point. I’d really love to get your thoughts on it, Mike. I didn’t realize it until reading your article, but the points I made about the poor leadership are all because of failed expectations:



      Mike Myatt

      June 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      Hi Devan:

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ll read your post over the weekend. Thanks for stopping by. 


    Jenny T

    July 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm


    How articulate and insightful. Here is a real life example that illustrates leadership that creates constant expectation gaps: I have just had an experience working with the CEO of a company recently, whose communication style is so flawed that he constantly creates a mismatch between what he promises his business associates and colleagues and the actions and decisions he ultimately executes. His agreements are usually verbally communicated, and where they are in written form, they are ambiguous. He changes his mind often and does not communicate his rationale for these changes clearly, or at all. He often finds himself embroiled in interpersonal conflicts, some of which result in legal action, or threatened legal action. A lot of his time and energy is spent in putting out fires that he has stoked. Yet, he sees nothing wrong with his own behaviour, and feels beleaguered.


      Mike Myatt

      July 13, 2012 at 10:02 am

      While I cannot comment with certainty due to a total lack of information, It appears as if this CEO has blind spots related to an egocentric leadership style. When a leader’s focus is to control rather than surrender, or put another way, to direct rather than develop, trouble is never very far off.  

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