Culture’s Cogs – Expectations

Synopsis: Expectations are the medium through which a culture propagates. Expectations can be set through words, use of benchmarks and through actions.

This post is part 3 in the Cultures Cog’s series of posts. Click here for – Part 1

If a culture is to propagate it needs a medium through which to flow. As suggested in the culture’s cog diagram shown in part 1 of this series, expectations are a vehicle through which cultural norms are transferred from leader to team and peer to peer. In their simplest form, expectations are the verbalized expression of what the leader wants from those around them. When a manager or leader tells people “this is what I want from you” they are setting an expectation. That expectation will then be the platform against which the leader will measure or judge the performance of the individuals or team.

Of course, expectations don’t necessarily need to be verbally stated. At times they may be more subtle actions, reactions or cues. The simple act of closing the door and starting a meeting on time (even if some people haven’t yet arrived) is a way of setting the expectation that people should arrive on time. What the leader chooses to accentuate, what the leader ignores and how the leader conducts themselves, can all be used to set and communicate expectations. If the leader frequently focuses on one particular issue (e.g. quality, safety or some other important issue), the team will soon understand that the focus placed on that issue represents an expectation that they too should focus on that issue.

Setting expectations and bringing them to life is a skill that takes practice. It requires the leader to have clear picture in their own minds of what they want from people. It requires the leader be able to link their own words and actions with the desired behaviours, and it requires the leader to be able to express themselves clearly. Furthermore, for an expectation to get set the receiving person has to believe in the credibility of the leader who is setting the expectation. If the leader says one thing today, but contradicts themselves tomorrow, the leader will simply look capricious. If the leader sets an expectation for the team but their own actions or behaviours violate the stated expectation, the leader’s credibility can be undermined. For an expectation to be transferred from leader to team, there needs to be ongoing consistency in messaging and the follow through that brings the expectation to life. Furthermore, for an expectation to stick the expectation also needs to be clear to all and realistically achievable. If the person receiving the expectation doesn’t understand the message, or lacks the skills to satisfy the expectation, the expectation could potentially become a source of conflict.

Fortunately, leveraging expectations as a leadership tool is a learnable skill. With a bit of coaching, most leaders become attuned to the idea and can get the hang of things. For leaders wanting to leverage the power of expectations, perhaps, the first question needing to be answered is: what should my expectations be based upon? The answer to that question lies in the imperatives discussed in part 2 of this set of blog posts. As outlined in that post, imperatives are the core values management use as the moral compass to manage the business as a whole. Most larger organizations do have a core set of imperatives and it’s not unusual to find those values have been published on the web. Visit a corporate website and you’ll often find a page titled “our core values” (or equivalent) that lists the corporate imperatives for all to see. Of course anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows that those “core values” don’t always translate into anything meaningful. In some businesses the values are just marketing collateral that have no bearing on how the organization functions. In such organizations, the leadership either doesn’t really believe in the values or they lack the skill to set and manage expectations such that those values are bought to life. Interestingly, in the organizations I’ve visited that have healthy corporate cultures, the “core values” listed on the web do align well with the internal behaviours of the management and staff. More than platitudes, the “core values” web page is a meaningful backbone that the organization has successfully embodied within its practices. Perhaps the easiest way to tell if an organization has a healthy culture is to ask staff members if the core values published on the web match the internal functioning of the organization. Where the answer to that question is “yes”, you may well be looking at healthy functioning culture. Where the answer is a resounding “NO!”, you may be looking at a dysfunctional organization in which management has been unable, or unwilling, to translate their own stated values into expectations that they leverage and apply.

While imperatives are the heart of a culture, a culture is really a hierarchy of values. The imperatives that sit at the top of that hierarchy represent core values for which the expectations are rigid and strong. Violating the expectations would be a serious concern to management and could draw significant heat for a staff member who dared to step outside the cultural norm. As you move down the hierarchy there is a growing degree of flexibility and the associated expectations become less stringent or severe. For the purposes of discussion you could consider the layers in the hierarchy to be:

    1. Imperatives – Very hard to violate, the value is held so centrally that people only violate very rarely and feel a sense of anguish when they do
    2. Principles – Modified or bypassed but only occasionally and for good reason that is clearly communicated to affected parties
    3. Guidelines – Usually followed, but flexible when needed a long as people are informed or the need is clear
    4. Preferences, style and vibe – Softer values for which there is a willingness to bend if others have other preferences or if a need exists. There is no need to justify or explain when modified, although people will take note when a person isn’t complying.

While the expectations associated with imperatives may be written down, published and directly verbalized by senior management, expectations at the lower levels of the hierarchy are often transmitted using more subtle nudges, hints or cues. In some ways these more subtle methods of communicating expectations are the more powerful ones. They translate nebulous ideas into practical moments that human beings are attuned to. While some managers may not realize it, staff members are often reading subtle messages into the actions they take and those subtle messages include expectations that either encourage, give consent to or discourage certain behaviours. These unstated expectations are the things people pick up simply based on the observation of others within the culture. For example, if everyone else turns up for meetings on time a new employee will quickly recognize that turning up to meetings on time is expected and hence they may well start to make sure they turn up on time as well.

While senior managers play a significant role as the “thought leaders” in a culture, when you look at well established cultures you start to see that expectations not only come from senior management they also propagate through peer-to-peer connections as well. Through the mechanism of peer pressure the norms of the organization can spread horizontally rather than just vertically. People start holding each other accountable for the cultural norms and when one person sees someone else violate a cultural norm that they themselves have embodied, that person may feel a sense of cognitive dissonance that leads to indications of discomfort with the offending behaviour. Those indicators may be as simple as just raised eyebrow or they could be more serious manifestations of dissent or even possible conflict. In the healthiest corporate cultures I’ve witnessed the peer-to-peer transmission of expectations is an active element that helps perpetuate the culture and its norms.

The challenge for leaders and managers is that setting and managing expectations is subtle stuff. The messages need to carefully but clearly expressed, the messaging needs to be reinforced on an ongoing basis and there needs to be a consistency across the complete management team. It’s not just what you say, it’s when you say it, how you say and how your own actions relate to the messaging you are sending. Mixed messages, inconsistent application or functional silos that are singing from different hymnbooks means that the ability to use expectations a management tool is lost. Despite the challenge, learning to set expectations and learning to manage them is a core part of what it means to be a leader.