ATD Blog

The Power of Expectations and Feedback

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Clear expectations matter. Research has shown that the greatest source of substandard performance is a lack of clear expectations and feedback. Too often, managers have overreacted to concerns of being micromanagers, and given direct reports the autonomy to figure things out on their own.

Miracle of high expectations

The Pygmalion Effect has been demonstrated in the corporate environment. J. Sterling Livingston in his 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Pygmalion in Management” made the following conclusions:

  • What managers expect of workers (and the way they treat them) largely determines performance and subsequent career progress.
  • A unique characteristic of superior managers is the ability to create high-performance expectations that, in turn, subordinates fulfill.
  • Less effective managers fail to develop similar high expectations, and as a consequence, the productivity of their subordinates suffers.

Indeed, managers' expectations of workers can have a powerful effect on overall productivity in the workplace. High expectations are more than creating positive work environments, they significantly impact organizational performance.
Role of communication

Expectations are transmitted through either verbal or non-verbal pathways. In addition to their supervisor or manager, employees receive organizational expectations from a variety of sources, both formal and informal, including:

  • policies and procedures
  • job aids and training materials
  • organizational culture
  • recognition systems.

As noted earlier, much of the Pygmalion effect comes from a manager’s non-verbal communication. Messages of genuine confidence are projected to the worker. The manager communicates high expectations for the worker and she finds the assignment challenging but achievable. Additionally, the worker must believe the manager’s confidence is genuine.

Expectations and the EPS Model


In the EPS model, influences on performance are non-discrete; there is spillover and interaction among the categories.

For example, clarity of expectations has an impact on job fit and this connection begins with how much clarity is provided when a job is advertised what will really be expected? When you provide clarity about what will make someone successful in role, it is easy to see how this will align and energize a person’s motivation.

Feedback: breakfast of champions

The quote “feedback is the breakfast of champions” is attributed to Ken Blanchard, perhaps best known for The One Minute Manager and Situational Leadership. Whether athlete, musician, or knowledge worker, the cycle of performance (perform, feedback, revise, perform) holds true as the means to improve results.

Constructing a feedback system that delivers the power to obtain higher levels of performance requires more detail than determining whether feedback is happening or not.


The macro process for delivering effective feedback begins with collecting information about the accomplishments (or outputs) that people produce on the job, from the vantage of your organization’s exemplary performers. At the same time, collect information about the standards and criteria that exemplary performers use to judge their own work outputs.

Precision of expectations and feedback

One of the most important aspects in collecting data from exemplary performers is specificity. You want to be precise about how work outputs can be judged. Terms such as “several,” “rapidly,” “near the center,” or “acceptable” are too vague and don’t provide the clarity required to improve performance.

Keep in mind: The focus of effective feedback should be on the work outputs and not just the behavior or activity.

For more on how to shift the performance curve, check out Al’s previous blog article or browse the full series.

About the Author

Al Folsom, PhD, is VP of Ops and Chief Performance Officer at Exemplary Performance, where he brings more than 25 years of experience in the field of Human Performance Technology (HPT). His most recent work has been helping people and organizations make the transformation to strategic work as strategic business partners and performance consultants. His performance consulting projects include improving performance in the petrochemical industry; supporting underwriters of commercial insurance and medical testing laboratories; and federal work in the area of search and rescue and operational risk management. Dr. Folsom joined EP in 2008 after serving as CLO of the U.S. Coast Guard. He currently resides in Geneva, AL.

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