Navigating the Murky Waters of Workplace Expectations


We spend most of our work lives managing other peoples’ expectations. Yet, half of employees say they don’t know what’s expected of them at work, according to Gallup research.

Sadly, we don’t have to look far to find stories of how this unfolds in the workplace.

Consider performance management, for example. Peggy Parskey recently shared several colleagues’ experiences with annual performance reviews:

“My manager indicated I’d be promoted if I accomplished specific goals. At the annual review, she agreed I had met or exceeded all of them. Then she told me that she had received feedback that my interpersonal skills were poor, so my promotion would be delayed. I have worked for this manager for two years. This was the first time she raised this issue.”

“We set goals in January and didn’t look at them again for a year. By then, my job had changed so much that the goals didn’t make any sense.”

“I thought I was doing a great job and I’d be rated highly. My manager thought my work was sub-par. He told me for the first time at the annual review.”

Professional development programs provide another example of how expectations are violated. Here are several worker quotes from TINYpulse’s 2017 Employee Engagement Report:

“I’m not quite sure what promotions, if any, are or are not available to me or my colleagues at our level. There seems to be a high rate of turnover that may be, in part, due to a lack of clarity on how to grow within the business.”

“It has never been explained to me what each role entails and what I need to achieve in order to progress.”

“While I feel like there is a lot of future opportunity in the organization, I have no idea how to get promoted. My manager has never discussed development or promotion opportunities with me.”

TINYpulse’s research found that 42% of managers feel that management is transparent, but only 25% of employees agree. Clearly, there’s a disconnect.

Something’s wrong with the way most companies create, manage, and communicate expectations. Although leaders may assume that expectations are clear, there are many other personal beliefs and assumptions at play under the surface, which only muddy the waters.

Psychological Contracts Explained

When an organization hires an employee, they enter into a psychological contract of expectations. The employer expects a certain level of performance from the employee, and the employee expects to be treated with fairness and respect in return.

When workplace expectations aren’t met, this psychological contract is breached, potentially causing significant damage to employee engagement, retention, and the overall level of trust in the workplace.

Researchers Elizabeth Wolfe and Sandra Morrison found two primary causes of psychological contract violations, explained in two separate studies published in 1997 and 2000.

1. Reneging. Reneging happens when a company is either unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations to an employee. Poor company performance or unforeseen changes may occur, and the company is unable to deliver on its promises to the employee. Or, if the employee is performing poorly, the organization may be unwilling to give performance-based incentives, like bonuses or promotions.

2. Incongruence. Incongruence occurs when an organization believes they have met their obligations, but the employee believes otherwise. Employers may have different assumptions about their expectations than the employee. Or the expectations are too complex, or simply unclear. Implicit promises—conveyed through actions or indirect statements—are also troublesome. Finally, poor or unclear communication about expectations can also lead to incongruence.

Both of these root causes are heavily influenced by an employee’s vigilance and interpretation of the contract. Vigilant employees are more likely to pick up on—and actively look out for—true contract breaches, so they may be more likely to perceive a violation when there’s ambiguity around expectations.

When an employee feels their psychological contract has been breached, they try to understand why. Often, their assessment is heavily influenced by how fairly an employee felt he or she was treated leading up to the breach.

If your communication about an issue is unclear, employees are likely to assume the worst. Transparent communication builds trust. If your employees don’t trust you, they expect you will renege on your promises, and begin to gather data to reinforce that belief.

Now that you understand the causes, how can you avoid damaging the psychological contract with your employees?

Avoid a Breach by Setting Clear Expectations

Sometimes a psychological contract breach is unavoidable, but the subsequent destructive reactions that follow are not. Clear, honest, and transparent communication about expectations and is always ideal if you hope to mitigate the potential damage of a contract breach.

Here are some tips to help you set clear workplace expectations:

  • Document and share processes for moving up in the organization. Most employees today want the opportunity to develop and grow professionally. Make sure they understand how to do it. Otherwise, they may begin to look outside of your organization for their next opportunity.
  • Be repetitive. Employees may not always hear or understand an expectation the first time. People remember and trust concepts if they’re more frequently exposed to them, so consciously repeating workplace expectations will help eliminate confusion.
  • Use targeted questions to ask employees to articulate their own expectations. Don’t ask, “What are your expectations. The question is too broad and people may have trouble articulating them. A better question is, “How do the goals we’ve set together match your current job?” Or, “How do you envision yourself developing at this company?”
  • Recruiting and onboarding play critical roles here. The sooner your employees understand your culture and the expectations of your workplace, the better they will be able to objectively assess the reasons behind a breach of their psychological contract.
  • Provide regular feedback about an employee’s performance over time. Employees want to know if they’re doing a good job. They want to understand how to improve and grow within your company. But they need all of the available data to understand how they may or may not be meeting your expectations. Often, annual reviews are not enough.

Take stock of how you’re setting expectations for your team. What do they expect when they join? How are you meeting those expectations? And how can you continue to be transparent in your communication to reinforce their trust in you and the organization?