“Expectations profoundly shape our experiences. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of employee engagement.” – Jason Lauritsen

When our oldest child was in elementary school, there was a Christmas when he decided he was entitled to a new Nintendo Gamecube (this tells you how long ago it was).

As the big day approached, his hope for a Gamecube evolved into a demand. He would issue ultimatums that sounded like, “If I don’t get a Gamecube…”

We tried to explain to him that just because you ask for something does not mean you will get it. But, he did not relent.

In response, we decided to try to teach him a lesson (and perhaps entertain ourselves). We found a box about the same size you would expect the GameCube to come in and we filled it with small, but heavy, toys and candy. We packed it full with tissue paper so it wouldn’t rattle or make noise when moved. Then we wrapped it and put it under the tree.

As we hoped, he was certain that this was his expected new game system.

When Christmas morning came, he grabbed the gift and opened it first. As he opened the box, his face turned from triumphant joy to utter disappointment. Because he’s a sweet kid, he tried to hide this from us as best he could as he opened his other presents, but he was crushed. (Yeah, I know…we are terrible people.)

We realized immediately that this was not one of our best parenting moments. While we had hoped to teach him some sort of lesson through the experience, the fact that we had actually gotten him a GameCube (it was wrapped in another room) probably wiped out any learning.

Other than to reveal my failures as a parent, why do I share this story?

It’s to highlight the power of our expectations. Expectations dictate our reaction to almost every experience in our lives.

Consider the last time you saw a movie that everyone you know had already seen and told you it was AMAZING. I’d bet that your review of the movie sounded something like this, “It was good, but I’m not sure it was as great as everyone made it out to be.” Your expectations were so high, it was almost impossible for the movie to be amazing.

Or have you ever tried something that everyone told you was terrible only to find it “wasn’t so bad”? Your low expectations made it less likely you’d find the experience distasteful.

Expectations profoundly shape our experiences. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of employee engagement.

Each employee, based on their past experiences and the information they consume, has expectations for what work should be like. These expectations color how they experience work at your organization.

Employee engagement efforts typically skip over the critical work of understanding and managing employee expectations, instead focusing on measuring the employee’s perceptions of work through a survey.

Surveys can be incredibly powerful when expectations are clear and consistent. In the absence of this clarity, surveys are less potent (and why twenty years of surveying employees hasn’t fixed engagement).

For example, take the common engagement survey question “My supervisor cares about me as a person.”

If my past experience has been with supervisors who never spoke to me and seemed to disdain anyone who bothered them with questions, that is my baseline expectation of supervision. If my current supervisor acknowledges my existence and occasionally stops by to check in with me, I am probably going to rate this item highly.

On the other hand, if I work for this same supervisor now but have had a supervisor in my past who talked to me every day, asked about my family, and seemed to really take an interest in me as a person beyond work, my baseline expectation is very different. I am likely to rate this item low.

Same supervisor, same work experience, two very different ratings. The only difference between the two is the employee expectations.

photo of Jason Lauritsen on HRExaminer.com 2015

Jason Lauritsen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

As the supervisor, looking at the survey results for this item, what feedback does it communicate? Does something need to change or not?

Start with Expectations

To create and sustain high levels of employee engagement it all starts with expectations. It’s both about understanding and working to manage each employee’s expectations.

For managers, this means asking questions of employees like:

  • Tell me about your favorite manager you’ve ever had.
  • What type of communication works best for you?
  • What is the best recognition you’ve ever gotten at work?
  • When you think of a great day at work, what does that look like?

Questions like these help uncover individual employee expectations about work and equip managers to adjust their approach as warranted.

On the organizational level, this is the work of designing an intentional employee experience. While the process of doing this is not simple or easy, it can be boiled down to answering two questions:

  • What kind of experience are you working to create for employees?
  • How are you communicating to employees what kind of experience they should expect?

The key to employee engagement can be found in employee expectations. Once you’ve created clarity around expectations, everything else will fall into place easier.

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