We’ve all had them. That boss who tells you that something needs to be done by Friday, when it’s likely to take much longer than just a few days.
As leaders, setting timelines can be a challenge. After all, you might not be a technical expert in the work your team performs, so you don’t know exactly how long it will take.
On the one hand, you don’t want to set unrealistic expectations that your team can’t meet. On the other, you can’t have work dragging on for months, either.
To read more about how pressure can help your team, read this post: How to Use Work Pressure to Help Your Team Thrive.
Common Reasons Why Leaders Have Unrealistic Expectations
Unrealistic expectations are disappointing for everyone.
Your team hates them, because they feel like they can’t succeed. Leaders hate them eventually, when they work out that their team can’t meet them.
Leaders Have Unrealistic Expectations Because They Don’t Manage Up
Your boss tells you to do something by Friday. Instinctively, you feel like it isn’t achievable.
So, you have a choice to make. You can push this unrealistic expectation onto your team and put them under pressure, or you can push back on your boss and negotiate for a more reasonable timeframe.
Many leaders don’t push back. Instead, they accept their manager’s directive as a non-negotiable.
But here’s something to think about. Often your boss sets their deadlines without knowing exactly what the right answer is. The only way they will find out that they are being unreasonable is if you can explain to them why this is the case.
If you don’t say anything and accept the unrealistic deadline, then you only have yourself to blame.
Leaders Have Unrealistic Expectations Because They Don’t Know the Details
Often as leaders, we don’t know all the details about how long things take, or how difficult they are. This is to be expected, because we hire people to understand these things for us, so we don’t need to.
The obvious problem is that our estimation of how long something might take is likely to be a little off at times.
We don’t want to be consumed by the details, but we need to know a little about them, otherwise we’re likely to set unrealistic expectations of what can actually be delivered.
How Leaders Can Avoid Unrealistic Expectations
1. Understand the Workload and Priorities of Your Team
When you set a deadline, do you take into account the other priorities of your team?
Some leaders just keep adding tasks. One on top of the other, until there is an endless stack, which can’t possibly be completed.
You set the priorities, so make sure that you clarify what tasks are most important, and what can take a back seat.
If you need something done right now, what are you going to stop, to help that happen?
Your team can’t do everything, so focus them on the most important things.
2. Check For Any Skill Gaps
Before you became a manager, you might have been a technical expert in your field. As such, you think you know how much time something should take.
When your team comes back and says it will take twice as long, there could be a problem. One thing to check for is whether your team has the right skills and resources to do the work.
You can’t expect an untrained team member to do the same work as somebody who has years of experience. You need to set your expectations to match.
Read more here about cross-training your team, which might help this issue: Improving team performance through cross training.
3. Clarify Your Expectations of Quality
Some people are perfectionists. They will want to deliver you the perfect outcome. However, perfection takes time and often, “Done is better than perfect”.
When you delegate work, make sure you explain what quality you’re looking for. If you only need something “quick and dirty”, then say that.
Otherwise, you might just be waiting for weeks while your team prepares a masterpiece.
4. Take a Long Term View
I’m not a big fan of pushing teams to breaking point.
There are numerous sources telling us that recruiting people costs more than retaining them, like this one: https://www.wrike.com/blog/employee-retention-true-cost-losing-best-talent/.
When you push your team hard for long periods, you’ll burn them out. Good people will eventually leave, and you’ll be left with skill and knowledge gaps, and the need to onboard someone new.
Pushing hard for every ridiculous milestone might seem great when you achieve them. But what about the ones you miss, because your new team member isn’t as productive as your previous high performer?
Set Your Team Up For Success, Then Hold Them Accountable
When you set unrealistic expectations of your team, it’s actually very difficult to hold them accountable.
If you set somebody up for failure with a short deadline, limited resources and lack of knowledge, it’s very hard to look them in the eye and say they failed. You failed them.
On the other hand, if you set the priorities, provide the resources and ensure that people are skilled to take on the work, you’ve set them up for success. Only then can you hold people accountable if they fail to meet your expectations.
What’s your experience with setting expectations with your team? Do you agree or disagree with me? I’d love to read your comments below.
Alternatively, if you would like to ask a question or need some help on this topic, you can send me a private message through my contact page.