The best advice I ever received came unexpectedly. I was working late one night, probably 6 months in at my first agency job in London. There were about 8 of us, from different departments, and we stopped to order dinner.
The Chairman emerged from a late call in a meeting room, unaware we were all still there, and asked what we were all working on and whether it could have been avoided. Panicked at the thought that we were somehow being accused of not doing a good job, we quickly started shouting the reasons. ‘The deadline’s tomorrow and the feedback was late and the client changed their mind and there were leaves on the track and…’
The Chairman said ‘No, no, you misunderstand. Do you have to be here? Could you have avoided this?’
Again we all started to fret in unison all the reasons we were really honestly good at our jobs and that none of this was our fault, it was a consequence of the fast-paced, agency life we had willingly joined.
‘No. Sorry. I’m making this harder for you. I just mean that everything we do in this job is expectation management. You probably wouldn’t have to all be here if you were able to manage their expectations that the deadline is no longer valid and it will be delivered later. People are rarely disappointed if their expectations have been managed. Anyway, sorry to have upset you.* Hope you don’t have to stay too much later.’
And just like that, he vanished.
No he didn’t, I made that up. He left by walking to his desk to get his things and then left through the front door in plain sight.
But the idea that managing expectations wasn’t just a defensive move but a strategic one – that was mind blowing to younger me.
Imagine: Deadlines that you dictate. Clients accepting that things out of scope cost more and take longer. That if you start with Priority A, Priority B will not be started straight away.
And all because you managed expectations.
That’s some conversational ninja maneuvering right there.
So how do you do it?
Have difficult conversations.
If the idea of a conversation pitching high prices and long timelines freaks you out, this can be scary.
But it’s worth it.
The best negotiation book I ever read recommends doing an audit of all the negative things the other person is likely going to say and getting ahead of them. So lead with:
‘I know you’re going to be unhappy with the pricing and timing plan I’m about to put forward. That’s why I’m starting here so it’s not a terrible surprise at the end of our conversation.’
That’s it. Just get it out. Straight away the person is not expecting you to tell them the news that all their dreams come true for free in 5 minutes.
They might not like the cost or the timeline but they’re not surprised, and now they can get into a rational headspace to hear your side. Expectations have been managed.
‘Nobody wants to have that conversation up front, Jess”
They don’t. But you do.
Your script for managing expectations
When you’re in that situation you do this:
- You call the person relying on your work and you tell them things are getting a bit hairy.
- You offer them a brief reason why – one that doesn’t sound whiney or defensive or a thinly veiled attempt at blaming them.
- You say what you’re doing to fix it: more people, senior people, different people, whatever.
- You say you’re really sorry that it’s become apparent you need more time and you tell them when they can expect it. Tomorrow’s deadline can’t happen but the day after is doable, and to make sure they know your progress you’ll give them an update 3 times between now and then.
There’s actually a step 0 before all of this which is that you write this out before you call so you have a script. That way if you are interrupted at any point you can get the conversation back on track and you know where you are in your narrative. You have to get that control back.
‘What if they say ‘That’s unacceptable!’ Jess?’
Then they’re not really fair, are they? Because you’re not telling them you’re not doing the work because you’re going to the beach to get some ice cream and ride the carousel.
You’ve given a valid reason and been straightforward about the challenges. You’ve gotten ahead of it before the deadline, before it’s too late.
And that’s it.
It’s the simplest piece of advice but it’s been huge for me. People rarely get upset if they have their expectations managed.
The only thing worse than bad news is unexpected bad news.
*This may have actually been said out of sequence, in response to him stealing a spring roll from my takeaway box without realizing that it was the one thing I was looking forward to most in the world given it was 9:15pm on a Tuesday, I was still at work and knew I would be for at least another hour before facing my 90 minute commute. Like that episode of Friends “Someone ate the only good thing going on in my life!”
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
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