This week’s column isn’t for everyone. If your company always has enough money to satisfy your staff’s desires for raises, enough positions to satisfy their desires for promotion, and enough interesting projects to satisfy their desires for rewarding assignments, then read no farther.

Consider yourself extraordinarily fortunate, and move on to the next article. In fact, you might want to let the rest of us know who you work for—sounds like a great gig.

As for the rest of us, we have to manage in an environment where there is never enough of anything—except work to do, of course. Therefore, technical managers have become adept at balancing priorities and project schedules in order to manage workflow. In this column, I’m going to argue that many IT managers should spend more time managing the expectations of their employees.
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Why this is important
Let me give you an example to demonstrate why managing expectations is important. One of the people who works for me came from a publishing firm. While there, her supervisor constantly praised her performance, promising her that he would remember her hard work at her annual review.

When it came time for her review, both she and her manager ended up surprised and disappointed. From her point of view, she was shocked at how small her percentage increase was, given all the positive feedback her boss had given her over the previous year and his rhetoric that her effort would be rewarded.

From his point of view, he pointed out that her increase was more than three times the average percentage increase for the department, noting that the size of the total raise pool was determined by the company, based on business conditions.

From my point of view, I think the manager screwed up. Granted, he didn’t control the budget allotments for performance reviews for his department. That’s true for most IT managers—they have to deal with budgets approved by Finance. All the same, the manager could have—and should have—been managing the expectations of his employees in the months leading up to the annual reviews.

A better strategy
Here’s how that manager could have managed expectations:

  • In department meetings, he could have discussed the company’s financial performance. For example, he might have said, “This is a tough year for the company. Next year looks like it will be very good for us, but this year is a struggle. I don’t know how this is going to effect our raises, but I’m sure it will have some impact on them.”
  • Over a period of months leading up to her review, he could have tempered his enthusiasm for her performance by reminding her that his room to maneuver was limited: “I really appreciate the work you’ve done so far this year, and I want you to know I’m not going to forget it at your review. As you know, the company is really trying to control costs this year, but I’m going to do what I can for you within that framework.”
  • He could even have just stressed the company’s cost-cutting efforts in general, so that when it came time to discuss individual raises, she may have known what to expect.

I’m not saying that any of this would have worked in this case, but the manager should have at least tried. The employee may still have considered the amount unacceptable, but at least she wouldn’t have been surprised.

Two general rules
To successfully manage the expectations of your team, you have to keep two principles in mind. First, disperse information as quickly as possible. This is especially true with bad news—you need to stay ahead of that curve. Second, try to pair bad news with some good news.

Here are some ways that you can use these rules to help your employees maintain realistic expectations:

  • If one of your employees is interviewing for an internal position, and he’s clearly not right for the job, you might take the opportunity of the interview to discuss several future openings that he may be interested in.
  • Make sure that your HR department publishes performance review ranges, so that your people have a general idea of what to expect.
  • If you need one of your top people to take on an unpleasant project, you might pair it with one that she does want to do.

Of course, managing expectations is no substitute for doing whatever you can to reward excellent performance, and trying to keep your people motivated. That’s a given. However, if your company can’t automatically meet all the expectations of your employees, be proactive. Try to manage those desires—make them more realistic. If nothing else, you’ll get credit from your people for your honesty. In today’s business environment, that’s no small thing.
We’re talking about how to manage your employee’s expectations. To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.