The Employee Expectation Gap and the Role of the Manager.

Written by Nic Dampier

communication skills training

So, you believe you’re a great manager – you remember your team members’ birthdays, readily approve their time off requests, and even surprise them with thoughtful gestures like treating them to lunch. Yet, despite your best efforts, you find team members leaving, citing “better opportunities” as the reason. What more can you do to make them stay?

If you’re struggling with this problem, you’re not alone.

A recent Gallup poll uncovered a startling statistic: 51% of surveyed employees admitted to actively seeking or keeping an eye out for new job opportunities. Their top reasons for seeking change? Higher pay, improved well-being, and the chance to grow and develop in their careers.

This signifies a shift in the modern employee’s mindset – they no longer work just for a paycheck. They crave a sense of purpose, meaningful work, and a healthy work-life balance to remain engaged and satisfied.

Unfortunately, many employees fall short of these goals. Their aspirations often clash with workplace realities, resulting in a substantial gap between their expectations and actual experiences. When this divide remains unaddressed, it can lead to disengagement, reduced productivity, and high turnover rates.

But there is still hope. With proper support, managers can bridge the employee expectation gap, enhance the employee experience, and boost engagement and retention rates.

Understanding the Gap – the Elusive Definition of Growth

To better understand the issue, managers must recognize that employees have different interpretations of the word “growth”. For some, it may mean a new job title. For others, it may mean role changes, more challenging responsibilities, or skill development opportunities.

In a Quantum Workplace study, 70% of employees reported never discussing their career growth with their managers before leaving. Moreover, around 53% felt unrecognized for their contributions. When employees lack clarity about how to meet their expectations, frustration can set in, prompting them to leave organizations where they feel undervalued.

The key to handling this challenge lies in open and transparent communication. Managers need to engage in regular and meaningful conversations with their employees. Doing so can help them understand and align expectations, discuss personal growth, and create clear development paths.

When employees know what to expect and what the company expects of them, they become more satisfied and engaged. Like customer loyalty, employee commitment hinges on fulfilling expectations rather than workplace conditions.

What Shapes Employee Expectations?

Like the term “growth”, employee expectations vary and are influenced by industry, culture, and individual preferences. To gain deeper insights into these expectations, staying informed on current trends in current employee trends is essential. These trends include:

  1. Environmental Concerns

Many Gen Z and millennial employees expect companies to focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility. Even small initiatives such as recycling programs show a company’s commitment to these values.

  1. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)

More than ever, there is an increasing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Employees no longer settle for just diversity statistics. They desire inclusion, recognition, and appreciation for their unique contributions.

  1. Flexible Work and Work-Life Balance

Remote and flexible work has become the norm since the pandemic. However, organizations need to understand individual preferences and foster team connections to make this productive. For example, younger generations may prefer in-person interactions, while older team members prioritize flexibility.

  1. Employee Well-Being

Employee well-being extends beyond material wealth and includes pivotal metrics such as mental health and financial stability. Organizations should adopt a holistic approach to cover these facets when focusing on overall employee health.

And what’s the main takeaway from all this?

The importance of intentionality. Managing employee expectations is an ongoing journey that spans the entire employee lifecycle. Organizations must remain responsive to these evolving expectations and regularly adjust their policies and practices to increase employee engagement.

Setting Expectations from the Outset

In addition to staying on top of current workforce trends, managers should set expectations right from the beginning. This involves specific actions during the recruitment, interview, and onboarding phases.

Recruitment

During this stage, hiring managers and HR professionals should work together to set the foundation for a positive employee experience. In particular, there are two areas of focus:

  1. Defining precise role expectations

Hiring managers and HR professionals should develop a thorough understanding of the job’s responsibilities, tasks, and performance expectations. This clarity guarantees that candidates gain a realistic understanding of the role’s requirements and responsibilities.

  1. Creating accurate job descriptions

Are the job descriptions aligned with the required skills? Do they paint a clear picture of the company’s culture and values? Do they provide a reliable representation of what is expected? Crafting job descriptions that answer these questions will go a long way in helping candidates make informed decisions about their fit within the organization.

Interviewing

While presenting a positive image of the role and the company during the interview is critical, remember to avoid overselling or underselling the situation. Giving unrealistic expectations can result in eventual disappointment and dissatisfaction. Hence, hiring managers must strike a delicate balance when honestly accounting for the job’s strengths and challenges.

One innovative approach to managing expectations even before hiring is to offer shortlisted candidates the opportunity to job shadow. This immersive experience allows potential hires to see the daily operations, team dynamics, and workplace culture firsthand. When candidates get a real sense of the job and the company, they can decide if the role matches their preferences, skills, and career goals before accepting the job.

Onboarding

Once an employee has joined a company, they often decide to stay or leave based on their first 30 days. Even seemingly minor incidents, such as a lack of proper welcome, can leave a lasting negative impression.

Thus, managers should consider onboarding a crucial chance to shape the employee experience, beginning as early as the first interview. Rather than just focusing on training and paperwork, they should approach it as “belongboarding,” aiming to make employees feel valued from day one.

We Need to Walk the Talk

Now, let’s imagine that you’ve done all the above, and your employee seems to have found the perfect job. You might assume that you’ve successfully managed their expectations at this point. However, that’s not always the case. Even in an ideal job situation, there can still be an expectation gap if there’s a misalignment between the organization’s stated values and what is practiced.

Here’s the core issue: Organizations often promote publicly stated values that reflect their desired culture. However, the real culture of a workplace, what we refer to as “lived values”, is seen in how employees behave in their daily actions. Lived values may not always align with the company’s officially declared values.

Ignoring this misalignment can normalize undesired behaviors and impact the overall employee experience. In this situation, having a well-developed talent strategy is vital as it helps shape and sustain a positive company culture.

It All Boils Down to the Managers – But Are They Prepared?

Amidst these complexities, managers play a leading role. They have the power to make sense of it all, aligning stated and lived values, strategy, and employee expectations. But the question remains – are your managers ready for this challenge?

The reality is that managers are employees themselves and face their own expectation gaps. Unlike the traditional managerial role, managers today face a unique set of challenges. They can no longer rely solely on positional authority, and their employees are becoming increasingly self-reliant on their own knowledge and skills.

Managers are now also expected to hold the dual role of “player-coach”, balancing both managerial and individual contributor responsibilities. This shift requires them to build credibility over time and navigate with less formal authority while efficiently overseeing their teams. Managers thus often face their own expectation gap as they are caught between the expectations of their employees and superiors. As a result, they are twice as likely to quit their jobs compared to individual contributors.

What Can We Do to Help Managers Bridge the Gap?

Whether it’s managing the expectations of a manager or an individual contributor, organizations can implement the following strategies:

  1. 1. Establish Two Development Paths

Recognize that not all high-performing employees aim to become managers. Instead, design separate career development paths for individual contributors and those aspiring to manage. If an individual contributor transitions into a managerial role, adjust their individual contributor responsibilities to avoid burdening them with dual roles.

  1. Seek Authentic Employee Feedback

Implement employee experience metrics to measure employee engagement and job satisfaction. Conduct focus groups, pulse surveys, or third-party assessments at the right cadence to identify unmet expectations. Based on this feedback, act and improve wherever possible according to employee suggestions.

  1. Close the Manager Expectation Gap

Define and standardize expected managerial behaviors using a behavioral competency model. Assess their performance to see if they align with the organization’s stated values and recognize and reward proper behaviors. Again, reduce their individual contributor responsibilities to prevent widening the gap.

  1. Provide Tools and Training

Offer comprehensive training and support to help managers understand and meet employee expectations. Use 360-assessments to match their perceptions with reality, and give ongoing support through feedback, coaching, and facilitating connections with other managers.

  1. Encourage Transparent and Effective Communication:

Ensure senior leaders regularly convey the organization’s values, objectives, and expectations to help employees understand how their roles contribute to the company’s success. Additionally, empower employees to speak up by giving them a platform to share their expectations, concerns, and feedback. One way of doing this is for senior leaders to host regular listening sessions with their managers, where the purpose is to close communication gaps and gather insights into the employee experience.

Learn More about Closing the Gap with Frontline

At Frontline, we understand that the employee expectation gap is a complex challenge that demands ongoing attention, understanding, and strategic planning. Closing this gap is not just about meeting expectations; it’s about exceeding them and creating a workplace where your employees thrive and contribute their best.

Check out our webinar, where our in-house experts delve deeper into the topic of the employee expectation gap. Or contact us to explore how we can help you resolve this gap to forge stronger relationships with your employees, cultivate a more engaged and satisfied workforce, and solidify your position as an employer of choice in a competitive landscape.

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About the Author

Nic Dampier

Nic Dampier is the Creative Director at Frontline Training Solutions as well as the Grand Rapids, Michigan locations of Express Employment Professionals and Specialized Recruiting Group. With his degree in Strategic Communication Management, and over a decade in creative leadership, Nic developed the C.R.I.C.K.E.T. framework for effective brand messaging and excels in storytelling and brand identity. A U.S. Navy veteran and former Creative Arts Pastor, he has a rich background in cross-cultural communication and large-scale production. Nic is also an accomplished filmmaker, recognized at the 2021 ArtPrize International Art Competition for his impactful storytelling.