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Dealing With Unmet Expectations

by Craig Hickman on July 14th, 2010

Unmet expectations are a reality of life—whether they surprise you because you failed to thoroughly inves­tigate a situation, shock you because someone made a huge mistake, or ruin your chances of success despite everyone’s best efforts to deliver results. So, why is it that even the most able and willing people can sometimes fall short of expectations? How is it that organizations with talented people who are anxious to succeed and want to be a part of an enterprise that makes a difference in the world, sometimes fail to deliver results? In our experience, when willing and able people fall short of expectations, it’s usually because they lack accountability or are working in a culture (“the way we do things around here”) that hinders their chances of succeeding.

A perfect example of this occurred when we were building a family cabin in the mountains. We expected the general contractor to finish a large room with pine tongue-and-groove wall panels to match the other rooms in the cabin. It seemed like a simple task, yet when we stopped by to inspect the work, we discovered that the installers were placing the right material rough side out. Not only would the walls’ rough texture expose splinters to the unwary child’s (or adult’s) hand, they didn’t match the cabin’s other interior walls. When we asked the lead installer why he’d chosen to place the rough side out, he told us that most of his customers preferred it that way. After all, these were the mountains. The thought of finishing the room with a surface similar to every other wall in the house had not even occurred to him. When we talked to the general contractor about the problem, he seemed quite surprised and confused that his lead installer made such a mistake. This installer was a superb carpenter and a real pro (Able), he was work­ing long days to get the job done (Willing), and he had done a great job mak­ing the joints tight and the surface well-patterned. But it was wrong.

Closer inspection revealed that the contractor was not following up as much as he should have, and the installer was making decisions with­out checking in with the contractor, because the contractor was often hard to reach. Appar­ently, the subcontractors had learned to compensate for their lack of access to the general con­tractor by making their own decisions based on what they thought would look best. And, of course, each subcontractor passed along information about “how things work around here” to new subcontractors on the job, transferring the general contractor’s organizational culture and its likelihood for mistakes such as rough side out. Accountability and Culture were the explanations for why expectations went unmet in this case. The cost? Three additional days of wall sanding to match the rest of the cabin, along with the time and hassle on our part to clean up the mess that additional sanding created throughout the rest of the cabin. The final outcome? Our unmet expectations were addressed and the problem led to a better accountability process on the part of the general contractor and a change in his organization’s culture to improve ongoing contractor-subcontractor-customer communications.

Adding Accountability and Culture to Willing and Able pro­vides a complete model for managing unmet expectations and provides guidance to those who want to hold others accountable in a positive, principled way. These four variables—Motivation (Willing), Training (Able), Accountability, and Culture—are fundamental to what we call the Accountability Conversation®, a process that allows you to deal effectively with people who are falling short on expectations, regardless of whether or not they report to you. To learn more about managing unmet expectations and creating the kind of accountability that produces ever-improving results, go to

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