Why We Hate to “Meet Expectations”

Bob Wiesner | March 5, 2019

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If your organization has a formal performance review process, it might include a rating against specified activities or skills.

Does your rating scale have some version of this?

  • “Exceeds expectations”
  • “Meets expectations”
  • “Falls short of expectations”

Many of those I’ve worked with are similar. And that would cause all kinds of problems.

My direct reports (and truth be told, me as well when being reviewed by a boss) were firm believers that, if good at their jobs, they should be reviewed as “EXCEEDS expectations.”

Few of my people got this grade (at least on my first draft).

I thought my logic was irrefutable. And still is. Nevertheless, tons of issues would emerge. I’d be regarded as a very tough grader. And not without some justification, especially when they compared what I said about them to what other bosses said about their peers.

But I was right. And I’m still right.

What’s so bad about Meeting Expectations?

Here was my thinking:

You’re hired into a specific role. That role is pretty well defined. You’re capable of successfully executing that role. And, over the review period, you did. You did everything expected of someone in that role, including, perhaps, innovative thinking, team leadership, strategic insights, flawless execution, etc.

If those were in the job description, and laid out for you as the deliverables of the job, and you did them, then by definition you met expectations.

Yet so many people hate getting that review.

It’s probably because their peers are getting “exceeds expectations” reviews for doing basically the same things. The only difference is a different reviewer. (Or more persuasive direct reports.)

Or bonuses and raises are awarded only to those who “exceed expectations.”

So, yes, the reviewee would be at a disadvantage if peers are getting better reviews for performance that isn’t substantively better.

That was the most compelling – or only compelling — argument made to me to cause me to change my rating. I didn’t want my people cheated out of money.

Exceeding Means Exceeding

I believe the “exceeding expectations” type of review should be reserved to those people who actually did exceed. And it’s pretty easy to identify who really deserves it.

  • The individual contributor who stepped up to take on a management role without the manager title.
  • Someone who chose to take on a project or responsibility beyond their job description, and implemented it well.
  • Someone who took it upon themselves to become a subject matter expert.
  • The person who innovated in a meaningful way when it wasn’t in the job description.
  • The risk-taker who, within reason, was willing to fail and to learn.

Given time, you and your direct reports can come up with a dozen more.

I’m encouraged by organizations that have eliminated formal appraisals. Of course, they have to become awesome at giving regular, actionable feedback. If you still have a formal process, and it has some sort of rating system, I’d hope the entire organization has a common understanding of what expectations are, and when they’ve been met or exceeded.

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