As a Business leader – To Get More Than You Expect, You Have to Give More Than Others Expect



We’ve all heard the widely perpetuated theory that we make use of only about 10 percent of our total potential brain-power. The inference is that we have a reservoir of untapped potential that if released could dramatically increase our intelligence and success. While the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls has been cited as validation of this notion that we only use a fraction of our brain-power, it has never been scientifically proven to be true.

However, when it comes to leadership in business, there is a similar theory of underutilized power that has been repeatedly proven to be true. It is called the “theory of unexpected expectations.” This concept manifests itself when business leaders significantly underestimate the potential of employees; and it happens all the time.

Most business organizations are nothing if not structured. It is a world focused on process and procedure, often with little real attention to progress and performance; especially performance above the expected. In the corporate environment more effort is directed toward the desire to have every activity controlled by approved systems of operation than there is in seeking to achieve the potential of exceptional performance.

When it comes to employees, most companies strive to catalog and categorize their activity and expected performance. Employee are put in a box – a performance box. The “job description” outlines the tasks to be completed, expected performance levels and the value (salary) the organization is willing to pay for that activity.  The ubiquitous “annual review” ritual is a tool used by management to inform employees how close they have measured up against the expectations of performance established by the organization.

I fully understand (but don’t accept) the logic driving the standardized approach to establishing performance expectations for employees within a business organization. The objective is to create conformity that eliminates uncertainty over the expectations of employee performance. Admittedly there is a certain amount of need for this, but it does come with a price.

The downside to delineating and monitoring expectations of employees is that it can leave a great deal of potential performance on the table. Just as there is the inference of wasted opportunity when we only use 10 percent of our potential brain-power, there is the corollary of wasted performance when the potential of people-power is squandered in the name of consistency and conformity. In the long run this means that the overall performance of the organization is less than its potential.

A Better Way to Set and Achieve Expectations of Performance

My firmly held belief is that employees will contribute beyond what is expected of them if their contributions are encouraged, respected and rewarded beyond what they expect.

There is no standardized way to create an environment that motivates employees to contribute beyond what is expected of them; and if there was it would be no better than the current system. There are in fact a variety of ways this type of motivation for exceeding expectations can be created. Finding the right one may not be easy, but the reward – for the organization and the employee – is worth the effort. Just this past week I read of one company making the effort to create an environment that encourages employees to contribute beyond what is expected.

Neal St. Anthony, the insightful longtime business writer for the Minneapolis StarTribune, profiled a small manufacturing company in northwestern Minnesota. The owners of the company – Central Boiler – have a simple philosophy when it comes to their employees – they share the value their employees create with the employees. Dennis Brazier, one of the owners, was quoted as saying, “You treat people the way you want to be treated.” There is no obligation for this small private company to share the rewards of the company’s success, but it does. According to St. Anthony’s article, in 2015 the 235 employees of Central Boiler shared equally a pool of $1.26 million dollars. This was a clear signal to all employees that their contributions are encouraged, respected and rewarded beyond what they expect. And this in turn motivates employees to contribute beyond what is expected of them.

I discovered that the best way to encourage employees to contribute beyond what was expected of them was to show respect for their talent and contributions by including them in the process of setting the standards of expectations. It may seem counterintuitive for a large organization to allow the employees to set expectations of performance, but so long as they know they will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts, the standards they will set for their performance will always be higher than you expected. When employee performance exceeds expectations, both the organization and the employees become exceptional.   


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