The 4 I’s of Missed Expectations

This post comes from guest expert, Mike Sambrook, MA, Principal, Brackish Consulting Group Ltd.

It’s been said that having high expectations of someone is a compliment and I agree.

Unfortunately, the compliment paid often leads to frustration, disappointment, or even anger when others do not live up to our expectations. Leaders often have high expectations of themselves and these expectations drive them to high achievement.

These same expectations though, when directed towards others cause many leaders to question why their people cannot “just do what I would have done”!

I have worked with leaders for over a decade now and helping them manage this gap between expectations and reality may be the most challenging aspect of my work. “Why can’t, or why won’t my employees just do what I expect?”

This is the million-dollar question – why can’t they?

As is typically the case for leaders, the answer to this question is found by looking inward. Here are four common reasons our expectations are missed:


A common reason our expectations go unmet is simply because our employee(s) are ignorant of said expectations. They do not know what we expect because we have not communicated our expectations clearly.

Leadership author Patrick Lencioni, in his fantastic book “The Advantage”, suggests a key attribute of great organizational leadership is to overcommunicate clarity.

If our people do not know what is expected of them, we have no one to be disappointed in but ourselves. Clear communication of expectations is a gift to our people and a significant contribution to ensuring our expectations are met.


The second “I” of missed expectations is incompetence. Simply defined, incompetence means our people do not know how to accomplish the task that has been assigned to them.

This is a training issue. So often I hear leaders complain, “they should be able to do this”. Whenever I hear the word should I immediately point it out and ask leaders to explain why their people should be able to accomplish the assigned task or directive?

Answers typically range from how long they have worked here to how much they are paid, but these variables have nothing to do with whether employees have been adequately trained. Most people do not like to make mistakes; if faced with a task they don’t know how to accomplish well, they will spend time trying to figure it out, stall, or avoid it all together.

A failure to properly train employees is a recipe for missed expectations.


A very common reason leaders’ expectations are missed is because of incapacity.

Incapacity applies not only to our frustrations with others but is often the reason we become frustrated with ourselves. We simply do not have the capacity to successfully accomplish all that we wish we could.

A simple test to ascertain if you or your team has the capacity to accomplish a task is to quickly look at the 3 T’s (time, team, tools). Ask yourself these questions: Do we have the time required to meet our expectations for this task? Have we assembled the right team? Do we have the proper tools (physical, financial, etc)?

Too often, we look at a project in retrospect to see what went wrong and we realize we did not match our budget (time, money, people) with the requirements necessary to succeed. We simply did not have the capacity to take on the job in the first place.

A leader must ask the question, do we have the capacity for this project right now? Does this person have the capacity to accomplish what I expect? Have I provided them with everything they need to succeed? If the answer to any of these questions is no, or I’m not sure, we once again have to look inward to deal with the frustrations of missed expectations.


The final “I” of missed expectations in intentionality. At this point we have answered the questions inherent in the first three I’s: my people know what to do, they know how to do it and they have been properly resourced; they have capacity.

So why can they still not get things done the way I want them done? Perhaps they lack intentionality.

As leaders, we know what is important to us and to the outcomes we require. We are motivated by our desire to succeed; however, we define success. But do our people have that same definition? Are they working with the same motivation we are?

Each of us is wired differently and we are motivated by different inputs and outcomes. What is important to one person is not necessarily naturally important to another and therefore our intentionality towards tasks differs.

What we may find to be extremely important, another may think is a minor detail. As leaders, we are responsible to understand how our people are motivated and how to steward these motivations towards the necessary outcomes of the organization.

If our people do not appear to be working with enough intention or motivation, we must figure out how to communicate expectations in a way that matches what our people are working for. One of my mentors once said, “What people want to do, they do”; leaders must engage people on the level of their “wants”. Why would they want to do this job well?

Leadership is Difficult

This sounds like a lot of work! Wouldn’t it be easier to simply lower my expectations?

You have probably gone down this road many times in your leadership journey and you already know the answer to this question – no, it isn’t easier! Lowering our expectations of others ends in the same frustration and burnout that led us to this conversation in the first place.

Additionally, if having high expectations of someone is a compliment, then having low expectations is an insult. Leadership is hard work but it is worthy work. If we put in the work to ensure our people know what to do, know how to do it, have the capacity to be successful, and are appropriately motivated we will realize the benefits of a successful team and our expectations will be consistently met.

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