Is “Expectation” Really The Word You Want?

Expectations can be a slipper road


We’ve all heard this phrase: “…the expectation is” – and may have even used it once or twice ourselves. Today. Beware, in the age of Servant Leadership, the words we use matter more than ever. Phrases crafted to explicitly use the word “expectation” might be something of a  blunt instrument that creates a disconnect with our declarations of being a servant leader.

From an early age we’ve been taught that   “It isn’t what you say but how you say it”. That’s not untrue, but effective communication in general and leadership communication in particular are nuanced skills. How effective we are in navigating that nuance is not only a factor of our ability to step outside of ourselves to understand the conversation from the perspective of the recipient, but also an exercise in applying analogical reasoning.

Analogical reasoning is described as our ability to more completely understand something by relating it to something else we understand very well through the use of an analogy. To the extent we leverage empathetic thinking and analogical reasoning, we are able to increase the likelihood that our communication has the intended effect.

This leads me to the use of the word “expectations” when communicating priorities and desired outcomes to those we lead. How often do you define your expectations when meeting with your team – especially in those meetings where the stakes are high and results are critical? The word expectation in that context has grown to take on an authoritarian voice that implies a tone of consequence to whom the expectation is directed.

In some aspects, this can resemble a Theory X approach leaders use to ensure clarity of their intent and the consequences of  actions that fail to meet the expectation, but how does this reconcile against contemporary notions of Servant Leadership – an evolution of Theory Y leadership?

Let’s stick a pin in that for the moment and instead approach this from a different angle.  Say your household has key financial goals. You want to build towards these with your significant other. You have options here: 1) Engage your partner communicating in a style highlighting working towards  shared objectives and measures, or 2) Clearly state the goals and what you “expect” them to do and the outcomes you “expect”. The analogy here shouldn’t be dismissed.

To be clear, this is more than semantics. Anyone can state what needs to be done and by whom. However, the best leaders – whether they are CEO’s, VPs, Head Coaches, or Assistant Coaches – understand the psychology underpinning the interpretation of words as it relates to engagement, adoption and motivation. As spouses and partners we intuitively understand this as well. No matter how critical a non-work related conversation might be, we never engage our companion with, “…my expectation of you is”.

Word choice matters just as much as intonation. The art of building a shared vision with others in order to achieve an outcome is hard work. It requires levels of finesse that increase in proportion to the difficulty of the objective. Proclaiming leadership “expectations” can lead to unintended outcomes.  That’s why I never use words with my team that I wouldn’t use with my wife. It’s an outdated approach and a poor surrogate for inspiring a team to do great things. Servant leaders have better word options.