I often write about performance matters and this time is no exception. In all organisations, large and small, irrespective of industry, performance issues seem to be a hot topic. As we are all struggling to get upstream with how we need to change our work habits and routines, I was thinking about expectations – and particularly how they relate to performance.

So much has been written about expectations – in personal, customer and work relationships. Our attention and thoughts are heightened during this time of turmoil, uncertainty and change. We hear, listen to, read and engage in so many articles, webinars, online meetings, online learning and much more. And I often ask – what is expected? What is the outcome? How can I apply this? Will it improve my performance? So little seems to go the way we planned or how we anticipated the expected outcomes or results, albeit personally or work-wise.

Unrealistic expectations can be exacerbated by trauma during the world-wide lockdown and social distancing of many countries. This seems to bring out a set of behaviours whether covert or overt – good or bad. For example, anger is a behaviour manifesting in avoiding responsibilities, sarcasm and stubbornness to name but a few. And this could result in bitterness, a very negative construct particularly in our personal lives and possibly spilling over into our “new” work environment and online interactions as well as the long list of things we (and/or our managers) are expecting from us during this time.

I want to turn the focus of expectations to workplace relationships. Expectations are closely linked to barriers which affect performance and these are key to positive outcomes and results. However, I have found during normal circumstances people are usually blamed when performance drops. These barriers show up in many ways – in operations and processes, such as technology issues or challenges, the individual or team’s competence and capability as well as organisational barriers, for example poor strategy interpretation and vague or unrealistic expectations. Unclear expectations bring their own dilemmas which could result in poor performance.

Below a matrix indicating various barriers interfering with clarity of expectations and affecting performance. The clusters of potential barriers are grouped for operations, people and organisational impact across an input – process – output context.

Performance Barriers Matrix


Nel, B 2019

Expectations, like barriers can be viewed from people, operations, processes and organisational levels. Some examples at these levels are:

  • People level expectations: staff and management could have different non-articulated expectations promoted unknowingly by corporate culture, eg leadership assuming most employees are engaged and motivated.
  • Operations and process level expectations: certain operational and business processes driven by assumed knowledge of tools and how-to’s and perpetuated by a misaligned value chain causing undue performance expectations.
  • Organisational level expectations: unrealistic and assumed perceptions from a strategic point of view, eg that communication channels are working well in all functions of the organisations.

In my work I have noticed that performance barriers exist mostly due to expectations poorly clarified and presented in a simplistic message format. It typically starts with ill-written job descriptions that are mostly culprits especially when inadequately linked to strategy and performance goals of the team, division or organisation. Given that these job descriptions mostly dictate the performance standards, results, quality, and quantity of work to be delivered, they are usually also managed in over-complicated performance management systems.

Many years ago when I started out in the higher education field, I realised adults learn and perform best when they know what is expected, why they should learn and how it could be applied in the workplace – the old adage – “what’s in it for me?” Fast forward many decades and it seems to be the plight of many organisations of how to achieve the best performance from employees.

I share 10 ideas to contemplate when you want to consider a performance change and to understand better the barriers affecting expectations.

  1. Whether employees’ expectations align with organisational expectations.
  2. Have an in-depth rethink of how strategy and objectives are shared with employees.
  3. How these objectives may best be shared – the most simplistic messaging format.
  4. The extent to which you know whether employees are engaged and involved with your passion to achieve and deliver.
  5. Assess whether you are achieving the required results from your performance management system.
  6. Whether there may be an alternative/better way to write job descriptions. Or whether performance descriptions would be preferable.
  7. Ascertaining whether your employees are engaged and living and feeling your   values.8.
  8. Identifying processes which should change due to the “new world of work” (NWOF) and how these changes may affect/not affect the performance of employees.
  9. Discovering whether employees know and understand their role and contribution in each phase of their employee life cycle value chain.
  10. Determining whether employees are clear on how best to serve customers and whether this is in line with organisational purpose and values. Identifying if employees recognise “what is in it for them”.

In my view, performance matters can easily be complicated through unrealistic expectations and complex or inappropriate messaging systems. This reminds me of an advertisement of a decade or so ago a financial institution ran across multiple media platforms, portraying a small demographic of the population in green-leafed suburbs enjoying the outdoors. This is an example of an unrealistic expectations to achieve performance – obtaining more customers or building the brand. Either way my perception is it failed and I am not sure what the effect and outcome of the campaign had on employee engagement and performance. This is a potential lesson learnt of how performance results are linked to expectations.

Belia Nel can be contacted at belia@nuro.co.za
View https://improvid.co.za and https://improvidblog.com

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