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 one day, and we don’t do it, disaster will ensue. Even minor expectations unfulfilled—like a cone-shaped cold treat—can bring about lasting trust issues, and lots of whining and tears. Trust me.
It’s the same for most of us, regardless of our age: unfulfilled expectations drive us mad. I’ve found that we adults aren’t very different from my children when our expectations aren’t met. Even though most of us have learned how to avoid crying, we sure are whiners. This is precisely why I try to avoid expectations as much as possible. As Sylvia Plath wrote, “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”
From an HR perspective, we can and should use expectations to our advantage. Just like our colleagues in customer service, I believe we should always strive to underpromise and overdeliver relative to our customer’s (i.e., employee’s) expectations. And we shouldn’t do this to blow them away with surprise (since research shows this strategy is limited) but simply to guarantee that we meet their expectations. Because not meeting expectations can lead to disastrous employee experiences.
Here are three specific areas where HR should strive to underpromise and overdeliver:
BambooHR recently had our open enrollment, and I was pleasantly surprised when, after very little pre-meeting hype, our decidedly-improved insurance benefits were announced.
Here’s the thing: our new insurance benefits are exciting. They really are. But had I heard beforehand that the benefit changes were “exciting,” there’s a decent chance that my imagination would’ve kicked in, and before long my expectations would’ve become unreasonable. (“Wait, no personal massage therapists?!”) Instead, I came into the meeting expecting nothing. I assumed we’d have the same as last year, so when I found out about the upgrades, it was an unexpected gift that made my day.
This is just one example, but we can apply the principle in many ways. 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.
This one is probably a little more obvious. We’ve all heard of recruiters promising the moon to candidates, only to have the new hires leave soon after that 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.
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 leave feeling deceived.
3. Reward & Recognition
If you promise a reward to employees, you had better give it to them! Again, obvious. But beyond promises, are there any rewards that you haven’t promised, but you know employees expect? Regardless of what you do, your people are going to talk, and from their conversations, they’re going to create their own expectations.
So, you need to proactively manage those expectations. For example, if your organization offered 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. Otherwise, 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 employees should expect to be recognized and rewarded whenever they do great work. Smart organizations know daily rewards and recognition matters, but they also know that sometimes you have to go beyond the normal to be exceptional.
So, overdelivering requires customization. HR should work with managers to understand individual employees and their motivations. Some employees will love a “good job!” from an executive, while others will simply want cash. It’s your job to know which one applies to which employee and act accordingly.
Delighted employees become loyal employees the same way delighted customers become loyal customers. By underpromising and overdelivering, HR can proactively fight to keep retention numbers up and create a far happier workforce.