Managing Expectations: The Most Underrated COVID Leadership Skill

By: Justin Nolte


When it comes to leveraging leadership skills on a project, it’s not just vision, messaging, listening, or even inspiring people that is the biggest factor to success; it’s managing expectations about the time and work effort team members need to commit throughout a project.

Being in the middle of a pandemic, which has forced many of us to be full-time remote workers, is only exacerbating what I consider to be a huge gap in leadership skills on projects. Throw in multiple time zones and a few native languages and this gap is brought to an entirely new level. 

Remote work is here to stay, even after COVID goes away, making it more difficult for project leads to do what they already do poorly—empower team members to effectively manage their time and engagement on a project. And that, as you might expect, can cause issues.

The “right way” to manage expectations will vary across teams, businesses and industries, but the approach is the same. It is a journey, a process that requires engaging people, being realistic about what can be done, surfacing hidden assumptions about what is, sharing the good and the bad, negotiating commitment, and being candid about the consequences of inaction. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned from my time managing projects and expectations.

Unrealistic Expectations Create Bottlenecks and Stress

The business wants to transform but may not fully understand the sheer importance of each project lead setting appropriate expectations with their team about time investment, roles, and dependencies.

Project team members don’t know how to effectively plan their time when they don’t know what is expected of them and when. Typically, unless they have worked on other business transformation projects, business team members don’t know what the project implementation process is like or when they will be expected to have their work ramp up or ramp down. They may be ill-equipped to juggle demands from different work streams or how to prioritize one activity over another.

In this all-too-common scenario, people are more stressed out, less organized, less likely to show up to meetings, and more likely to have dust ups with co-workers, vendors, and project managers. 

Assumptions Are The Consultant’s Enemy

You know what they say about making assumptions, right?

Consultants who think they see things clearly often get into hot water when they assume project team members know what they expect, or even what they’re talking about. 

I saw this firsthand on a project I did for a global consumer goods company. I conducted a survey at the end of the second phase and asked the client project team: 

  • Was your time adequately planned on the project? 
  • Was your engagement on the project satisfactory (not too much / not too little)? 

The first question was the lowest scoring of 24, which told me there was a problem. Almost all of the team members thought the questions were about how they managed their time and engagement. I thought they were about how I managed their time and engagement. Most rated themselves low in terms of time management, which told me we weren’t being effective at setting expectations for them.

From this I learned not to make assumptions!

Knowing Is Better Than Wondering 

When you’re on a roller coaster, you feel pretty good when you’re going straight up or down because you can see what’s ahead. Anticipation (with visibility) lowers the stress and increases the excitement. It’s the curves that cause anxiety: you can’t see ahead and that’s where the problems come in. 

I know I’m not channeling people’s energy correctly if they can’t see what’s coming around the corner. I can’t expect them to be productive if I’m throwing surprises at them. It’s important to show people the big picture and give them the opportunity to anticipate what is coming their way—not only to prevent negative consequences, but also to celebrate achievements.   

Understanding when there will be ebbs and flows in their work effort allows people to better manage their personal and professional time (something that is already difficult enough during COVID).

It’s also imperative to have a conversation: you can avoid the assumption trap by talking to people about what’s expected even if project expectations change (and they often do), how you will get there, and what success looks like. This is also the moment, during (re)alignment of expectations, when you want to gain commitment to what will be delivered and when it’s due, and communicate the consequences of not holding to the commitment. 

To facilitate that ongoing dialogue, it’s wise to have frequent check-ins before key milestones. This allows you to adjust course to ensure deliverables are completed and on time.  

It’s Always A Negotiation

Projects can often be turf wars. Everyone is competing for limited bandwidth when it comes to the key resources’ time. It’s a constant negotiation of determining what is the foremost priority now and how much time you can have of a given resource.

Being an effective leader requires continuously involving clients to express their views, align on expectations, and help project team members manage or adjust unrealistic expectations that were pushed down on them without understanding of the circumstances on the ground. 

If a team member knows what is expected of her, she can go to her superior to negotiate a new solution if her boss has unreasonable expectations. This is really valuable because it’s proactive and preventative—I can’t tell you how many times I have prevented a project from going off the rails this way. It is also a lot easier than putting a failing project back on track. 

Actions Come With Consequences

It’s one thing to tell people what is expected of them…but it’s something entirely other to explain the consequences of not following through on commitments.

When people don’t show up for meetings, for example, they are probably not linking their effort or lack thereof to the consequences of not showing up. But once they understand the specific negative impact that lack of effort has, they’re more likely to commit to the collective enterprise. After all, we all succeed or fail together.

The consequences of not acting can be significant for a business: increased financial cost due to project delays, extra cleanup caused by a disorganized go-live, and ultimately the potential for business objectives not to be realized.

When To Set Expectations

Now that you see the importance of setting expectations so everyone’s working together for the greater good of the project, when should you set them? In truth, it depends on the specifics of your project, but typical points when you should consider doing so are:

  • In the early stages of the project
  • When there are turf wars over client access
  • When a team member stops showing up to meetings
  • When there may be higher priority activities you’re competing with

The fact is: it’s never too late to set expectations, but the earlier you do, and the more frequently you revisit, review, and reset expectations, the more smoothly the project will go.

Conclusion

After I got the survey results that told me I needed to empower team members to better manage their time, I got better at laying out expectations earlier on. I let them express their needs so I could set expectations accordingly, and I adjusted unrealistic expectations where necessary. 

Engaging in this manner lets us sustain engagement, increase the likelihood of meeting project deadlines, and achieve project success, with all parties being more effective, and more understanding of one another.

There are too many uncertainties right now, thanks to COVID, but managing expectations helps to relieve pressure from uncertainty, and ensures that your team remains committed and able to balance their workloads.