The Management Difference Between Expectations and Standards

When it comes to management, the terms “expectations” and “standards” are often used interchangeably. There is actually a big difference, and that difference has particularly significant implications on management effectiveness.

An expectation is a strong belief that something will happen in the future. A standard is something that is used as a measure, a norm, or a model for comparative evaluation.

Managers are often fond of telling staff they must meet “expectations”, but there’s never a time when that is a good bar to set. If staff is not already meeting standards on a consistent basis, isn’t the expectation that they will not all of a sudden start doing so now? Telling them to meet expectations is equivalent to telling them to continue falling short of standards. If the team is consistently meeting standards, the manager should be challenging them to perform at a new and higher level. More realistically, the team may be consistently meeting some standards, but it’s unlikely they are consistently meeting every standard. In that case, the manager should be thanking the team for the standards they are meeting and challenging them to begin meeting the rest of the standards.

As an example from the world of retail management, a standard might be for the team to give a friendly greeting to every customer. The expectation, based on historical precedent, might be that the staff will do so as long as they are not pre-occupied with other tasks. In this case where expectation is short of standard, it’s the manager’s job to close the gap by managing to the standard, not the expectation.

The biggest danger of a manager managing to expectations is that they begin to accept expectations and stop pushing the staff to meet standards. Whenever a manager manages to expectations and fails to manage to standards, she or he sends a message to staff that it’s okay to fall short of standards. Perhaps the manager begins to believe the standard is impossible to achieve, or the manager feels bad about always giving negative feedback, or the manager simply gets tired of pushing the team for more. Whichever is true, the manager needs to take a good look in the mirror and decide whether they wish to be a mediocre manager or a highly effective one. The latter requires a sincere commitment to consistently managing to standards.


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