The Law of Unintended Consequences
The Million Dollar Question

Some Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Expectations

So you're thinking about what expectations to set in your NPO. What are some things to think about?

  • What are your current expectations? Both organizationally and individually, what are the performance objectives you have for your organization?
  • What are your unspoken expectations? Here's something I often see. Local NPO tells staff that what's expected of them is to provide services to their clientele. It may be teaching reading or helping victims of domestic violence or providing after-school activities to disadvantaged youth. Everyone in the place knows that's their job. But then there are all of these OTHER expectations that are not made explicit.

    So you have the agency that teaches people how to read. Staff think that their job is to teach people how to read. But then they find out later, that there are all these caveats that you have to be around a while to understand. Like the agency is getting funding to raise 50 people three grade levels in 3 months. Everyone knows that the lower the reading level, the more difficult that task will be, so the expectation REALLY is that you put the effort into the people who are most likely to get you the performance (people at higher levels already) and maybe you don't work so hard with the ones who are lower. And who may, in fact, need your help more.

    It's often the unspoken expectations that are driving what's going on in an organization. This can be OK, if they're the "right" expectations. But what agencies need to do is be EXPLICIT about those expectations. It's the implied, unrecognized stuff that can REALLY get you into trouble. 
  • How have you communicated your expectations? Does everyone in the place know both the organization's objectives and what's expected of them in their jobs? Are these consistently communicated? How? You need to ask questions, ask supervisors and front-line staff what they understand the expectations to be. Look at how staff are performing. Is it in alignment with what you've communicated? If not, it may be because your expectations are unclear or because you haven't really communicated them at all.
  • Are all of your goals "individual" goals? If the only thing you care about is people sitting at their desks, pounding out their own work and not feeling inclined to help others, then by all means, keep the individual goals. But if your organization has ANY need for teamwork, you should think about group goals, too.
  • What unintended consequences are you seeing? Do you have problems with staff performance that could be linked back to your expectations?  Is it possible that what you THOUGHT you were expecting isn't what staff actually believe is expected? What are the unintended outcomes?
  • Do you have expectations that are based on both outcomes (the end product) and process (how you get to the end result?) Consider not just WHAT you want to achieve, but also HOW you want to achieve it.

If your organization starts to ask itself these questions, you can start to create a workplace that communicates more effectively about what it wants. Later we'll have to talk about how you reward staff for meeting those expectations, but for now, it's a good idea to focus first on WHAT you will reward.

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