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Setting expectations with your manager at work. Have you talked to your manager recently?

Setting expecations

I used to exceed expectations at work. I am working harder now. What happened?

Are you setting the right expectations with your manager?

If you have never said “no” to your manager, you are probably NOT setting expectations. This post is for you. If one of your direct reports has not pushed back on the amount of work you have given them, this post is for them (and yourself). 

This week is part 1 of a 2 part series. This week, we discuss the setting of expectations with your manager as it relates to your work. Most employees do NOT set expectations with their manager. Some employees don’t realize they can or should set expectations. Others think it is a sign of weakness when they extend a deadline on a project or re-prioritize a list of projects.

Next week, we discuss the topic of setting expectations of setting expectations with your manager as it relates to your career. You have heard me kick the dead horse on this topic many times. If you are just working your ass off and expecting an opportunity to come your way, you can expect to keep on waiting. If your manager doesn’t know ahead of time what your career aspirations are, they won’t be able to help you achieve them or move towards them.

Most common career pitfall with overachievers

One common career pitfall that most ambitious employees fall into is one that most of us aren’t even aware of. I see this over and over with both employees early and late in their careers. The great thing about this is that our reputations can turn on a dime when we climb out of this career sucking hole. Most of us just take this mistake for granted, don’t think twice about it and don’t know to fix it. Most employees don’t have an idea they can improve their situation with just a few simple steps.  

If you have never thought to explain any one of the below statements to your manager, you are guilty of this career limiting move. Have you ever:

  • Told your manager “I’m too busy to take on this project.”  
  • Said to your manager “I have a full plate right now, VP Sally in Marketing asked me to work on another initiative so I won’t be able to take on your new initiative.”
  • Explained to your manager that you have too many direct reports and won’t be able to take on another new direct report.

If you have just sucked up additional work or taken on additional responsibilities when you already had a full plate, this post is for you.

I see it time and time again

Alex the ambitious employee is assigned a couple of tasks and finishes the projects in a well-done fashion. If we were to score his work on a scale of 1-10, 10 being high, he would be 10. With a track record of success, Alex’s manager assigns him more responsibility. Eric does great work on the additional projects and receives even more responsibility. Alex thinks his career is finally going somewhere because he is receiving more and more responsibility. Alex has a reputation for quality work. He is a 10. 

But with additional responsibility, Alex the employee becomes overwhelmed and although he is able to finish the additional projects, he isn’t knocking it out of the park anymore. He is getting the work done but the finished product is only “OK”. On our above scale, the quality of his work is now at a 7. He is just average. The current schedule of deadlines just doesn’t allow enough time to knock the project out of the park. Alex the ambitious could be working 60 hours a week at this point, but the work is only “OK”. Alex’s reputation went from excellent to just average. Yes, he is doing more work than the average employee, but the quality just isn’t there.

No person can serve two masters

This phenomenon can also happen when other managers recognize Eric’s work ethic and results and start to take advantage of their newly discovered workhorse. Alex’s manager is giving Alex the usual amount of work. In addition to this, and other managers are also giving Alex projects. None of the managers are talking to each other so they are unaware that Alex already has a pile of shit to do. 

Alex has never thought about speaking up to his manager. He received additional responsibility because he has been able to handle all the prior requests and said “Yes, I can do it” to every request. He is a stellar employee and he thinks he is managing his manager because he is making it easy for his manager give him more opportunity.  

Eric the ambitious doesn’t think to reset expectations. He just figures out how to accomplish the work. Never mind the pace is killing him, his family life or both because he is now working 65 hours a week. His managers see him working more hours and appreciate the effort, but the QUALITY of his work is slipping. His mental state is also slipping.  

Managing expectations doesn’t equal failure

It doesn’t occur to him to reset expectations with his manager. He thinks that resetting expectations is the equivalent of any of the following:

  • Alex will be compared to other weak performers
  • Assumes he is not going to get any new responsibility
  • Alex will lose the confidence of his manager

Alex was receiving more responsibility/opportunity because he had a track record of success. He isn’t going to push back on his manager and tell him or her “no, I am not going to take on any additional projects, I am busy. 

Setting expectations: Quantity vs. Quality

Soon, Alex’s performance starts to fall.  He may be working longer hours, but his results are falling. Alex is a victim of quantity vs. quality. This employee is doing a lot of work, but none of it is outstanding.

There is a balance here. Alex obviously enjoys his work OR has a sadistic work ethic. He wouldn’t be turning out stellar effort if he didn’t care about his job or his manager. I am NOT saying that you manage to a 40 hour work week. There will be weeks where we need to work more than 40 hours a week and this is what it means to be a salaried employee. 

We need to find our own balance. It may be 45, 55, or 60 hours a week. But if you find yourself getting burnt out or overwhelmed, talk with your manager. No manager wants to burn out their top employees or their workhorses who are consistently putting out great work. They want to keep them, nurture, and promote them. No manager wants to face the music with their VP when they lose a stellar employee. 

Are you overwhelmed?

Take a moment and breath. If you find yourself with too many projects and are feeling overwhelmed, list out all of your projects and prioritize them. If you have 10 projects, figure out which projects are the most important for your department or your company. Sit down with your manager and explain that you are working too many hours and share with them all the projects you are working on. Explain that all of these projects had deadlines and that with the current workload, some of the deadlines are going to slip. 

There was a time early in my career where I was working 60+ hours a week and loving life. Yes, loving the job. The key was to meet with my manager every other week so we could set expectations. I would literally explain the following:

  • What I was working on
  • What I was NOT working on 
  • What I was going to do 110% and do very well because it was important that this project was perfect.
  • What I was going to put 90% effort into because just getting it done was “good enough”
  • Where I was related to deadlines on all of the above

I wasn’t stressed because my CEO knew what he could and should not expect out of me. Sometimes he made adjustments to the schedule,

but we both agreed on what I would focus on in the following sprint. 

Your manager doesn’t want to lose a top performer

Trust me, your manager wants to know as early as possible if a project deadline is going to slip or you are burnt out. They are going to look at you with dismay if you come to them too late because we didn’t manage our workload. There are two cardinal sins over achievers consistently commit when it comes to managing their career.  

  1. Coming to your manager with a 2-week notice because you are going to burn out you. They would prefer to hear about your burn out BEFORE it is too late.
  2. Coming to your manager on the day before a project deadline explaining that the project completion date is going to slip. They want to hear about delays weeks if not months prior so they can reset expectations with their boss and reallocate resources to your project to get it back on track.

Talk with your manager. No manager wants to lose their stellar employee and no manager wants to tell their VP they lost a top employee. They will be motivated to work with you.


See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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