Manage expectations to thrive in a tight labor market

Luke Clayton

As of December, the latest month for which estimates are available, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate stood at 3.1 percent in Mesa County. Why do unemployment rates matter? The ability to find employees presents one of the biggest obstacles limiting small business growth.

When a business and its resources are stressed due to lack of work force, everyone feels the pain. Business owners and managers can feel helpless, especially when it seems like everyone else in town is hiring, too. Rather than lamenting they exert no control over the work force, business owners and managers should embrace what they do control — managing employee expectations.

A recent Gallup report showed a direct connection between employee satisfaction and engagement.  Employee engagement in turn drives profitability. An article by Barrett Business Services Inc., a business management solutions firm, also detailed how managing people and improving employee satisfaction affects the bottom line.

To isolate how people find satisfaction, author David Maister created the formula satisfaction equals perception minus expectation. In other words, the determining factor for whether or not we’re satisfied with an experience depends on the answers to two questions: What’s my expectation for an experience? Did the actual experience meet my expectation? If the experience exceeds the expectation, the result is satisfaction.

Now imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, an individual is given a bow and arrow and told to shoot a target. In the second scenario, an individual is given a bow and arrow and told to shoot the target by first loading the arrow onto the arrow rest, pulling it back and then aiming 6 inches above the center of the bullseye 20 feet away.  The second scenario likely would result in an arrow hitting closer to the center mark. The person in the first scenario is dissatisfied for not receiving the same information that allowed the person in the second scenario to succeed.

When employees know (perception) what the target is (expectation), the possibility of satisfaction increases.

Consider the following to create the possibility of satisfied employees:

Be intentional in interviews: Strive to determine if an applicant possesses not only the skills to succeed, but also values that align with the organization. Realistically describing what the company and job entails will give an interviewee a better idea of what to expect and an out if it’s not a position they want. A misunderstanding of the job or company in the interview will create subsequent misalignment between employee and manager expectations.

Have and use an onboarding plan: Onboarding plays a significant role in painting a picture of what a new employee can anticipate. An onboarding plan should include details about company norms and what to expect on the first day. It also should include a training plan of which everyone involved is aware and prepared.

Create space for open communication: Effective communication requires information to flow back and forth. If either the employee or manager isn’t happy with the other party, the divide between satisfied and dissatisfied will only grow.  Asking employees for feedback and acting on it when feasible will help make satisfaction possible.

Engage in difficult conversations tactfully: If an employee isn’t meeting expectations, they should be informed tactfully. Clear and appropriately supportive communication lets employees know they must change their behaviors. Give people an opportunity to improve by letting them know in a timely manner they aren’t meeting expectations.

Require managers to manage: It’s vital managers have the skillset to manage their teams. It can be easy to promote employees who work the hardest and have been on the job the longest into management positions. This can cause problems, however, if they don’t possess the skills to lead others. Ensure your management team is willing and able to manage.

Don’t leave your team guessing about how to hit the target. Manage expectations, improve employee satisfaction and grow your business during this tight labor market.