Underpromise and Overdeliver for Improved Employee Experiences

Generally speaking, I’m a slow learner, which explains why I used to make promises to my kids. It took me far too long to realize that if I promise we’ll go for ice cream and we don’t do it, disaster will ensue. When dealing with children, even minor assumptions like the location of a favorite toy or the schedule of a television program are seen as binding contracts, and failure to deliver can bring about an onslaught of whining, sulking, and even tears. Trust me.

It’s the same for most of us, regardless of our age: unfulfilled expectations drive us mad.

What is Expectancy Theory?

Being upset by unfulfilled expectations is totally normal; it’s human nature. From an HR perspective, we can and should use employee expectations to our advantage. Like our colleagues in customer service who strive to please customers, we should always strive to underpromise and overdeliver relative to expectations of the employee experience. And not because we want to blow employees away with surprise (since research shows this strategy is limited) but simply to guarantee that we meet or exceed their expectations. Why? Because not doing so can lead to disastrous consequences.

This is all rooted in expectancy theory, which proposes that people use prior reward experiences as a factor when deciding how hard to work on a future task, even before they begin. Explained in so few words, it sounds obvious; it would be foolish to work hard on something if you already knew the reward would be lackluster. But it’s a little more complicated than it seems. The reality is, we aren’t often given identical tasks in real life, and the rewards aren’t often easily predictable or even directly related to the task, yet expectancy theory suggests we work according to expectations formed by prior experiences and rewards anyway. In other words, whether or not we’ve done something before, and whether or not we know exactly what the reward will be, we use past experiences to determine whether our effort is justified in executing a task. And if past rewards have been lower than expected, our future efforts will be lower.

This means it’s extremely important for organizations—and HR—to first manage and then meet or exceed the expectations of employees in any area that could be interpreted as a reward, because if the employee experience is inconsistent or disappointing, employees are being preconditioned to underperform down the road.

Here are three specific areas where HR should strive to underpromise and overdeliver:

1. Benefits

BambooHR recently had our open enrollment, and I was pleasantly surprised when, after very little pre-meeting hype, our new insurance benefits were announced.

Here’s the thing: our new insurance benefits are exciting. They really are. But if I had heard beforehand that the benefit changes would be “exciting,” there’s a decent chance that my expectations might’ve become unreasonable. (“Wait, no personal massage therapists?!”) Instead, I came into the meeting expecting nothing, so when I found out about the upgrades, it was an unexpected gift that made my day.

Either the benefits you provide will be impactful to your employees or they will not. Ultimately, you cannot control what your employees think of them. However, when you create reasonable expectations—or no expectations at all—you give yourself a far better chance of delighting your people.

2. Recruiting

This one is probably a little more obvious. We’ve all heard of recruiters promising the moon to candidates, only to have a new hire leave soon after starting because they felt deceived. It’s a common problem in virtually every industry.

There are various ways a recruiter can overpromise to a candidate in the hiring process: They can inflate benefits and perks, overhype the quality of working conditions, and exaggerate promotion opportunities, among other things. Perhaps the simplest way to overpromise and underdeliver to a candidate is to focus too much of the pre-hire communications on things that aren’t related to their work.

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Once the dust of a new hire settles, a new employee has a very specific role in the organization, and they will spend the majority of their time filling that role. So, if you sold them on the awesome game room and how fun their coworkers are, but they don’t actually like the work they’ll be doing, they won’t be happy. And again, they’ll end up feeling deceived.

3. Reward & Recognition

If you promise a reward to employees, you had better give it to them! Seems obvious, and yet the biggest promised reward is probably in the form of fair compensation delivered reliably on time—something you may not have much control over in HR. But beyond explicit promises, are there any rewards that you haven’t promised, but you know employees expect? If so, you need to manage expectations.

For example, if your organization gave a Christmas bonus last year, your people are going to assume they’re getting one again this year. Not only that, but they’ll tell new employees about it as well. If for whatever reason you won’t be able to provide a Christmas bonus this year, you need to get ahead of the narrative and control it or ill feelings will prevail.

Whenever you can offer an unexpected reward to an employee or give unexpected recognition for a job well done, their company loyalty will grow. The challenge here is that expectancy theory would suggest against it, lest employees feel they deserve special recognition and rewards whenever they do great work. Smart organizations know how to balance regular recognition with occasional, thoughtful rewards that consider the recipient’s wants and needs.

Proper motivation requires customization, and HR should work with managers to understand individual employees and their quirks. Some employees need constant validation, while others may prefer to work under the radar and get an occasional group shout-out. Likewise, when it comes to rewarding a particularly good job, some people love traditional perks like a gift card or cash; others would be blown away by a simple “good job!” from an executive, delivered in front of the whole company. It’s your job to know which one applies to which employee and act accordingly. The goal is to give the daily motivation needed for maximum performance while adding loyalty-boosting moments of unexpected delight.

Delighted employees become loyal employees the same way delighted customers become loyal customers. By underpromising, overdelivering, and understanding the impact expectancy theory has on motivations, HR can proactively fight to keep employees happy, satisfied, and working hard.

Customer service understands the principle of underpromising and overdelivering, and so should HR.