Ready for a New Academic Year? Expect Great Things (Carefully)!

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This post is adapted from Storied Leadership: Living and Leading from the Christian Narrative, written by Brian Jensen & Keith Martel. The book offers a perspective on leadership that is developed from the rich story of the Scriptures.

Preparing for a new academic year was always one of my favorite times of the year--new students, new goals, new staff, new, new, new! It also carried new expectations for how things were going to unfold. Checking our expectations and practicing diligence with these is critical for planning a new academic year.

Leaders, or the good ones at least, tend to like a certain amount of control when it comes to their areas of oversight and influence. This isn’t a bad thing - leaders are the ones who step up, assume responsibility, and decide to work toward change for the common good.

Reflective leaders, however, know that frustrations and discouragement along the way are inevitable.

As I’ve navigated my own leadership journey, I have found that frustrations can often emerge due to a difference in expectations. It happens with supervisors, friends, parents, and neighbors. It can actually be hard to find a place in the world where expectations and experiences are not misaligned from time to time. And sometimes we don’t even realize that we had initial expectations, finding ourselves frustrated without even knowing why. We find ourselves with the feeling that something seems missing between what we thought was going to happen and what actually happened. Call it the expectation gap.

Andy Stanley identifies it as the “gap between what we expect people to do and what they actually do.” As leaders, we decide what fills this gap. According to Stanley, we will choose one of two responses—believe the best or assume the worst. When your colleague does not finish her task on time, believing the best means you decide that she had the best of intentions with getting the work done, but that a circumstance outside of her own control kept her from doing so. To assume the worst means that you quickly jump to judgment and decide that she disregarded the work because it was not important to her. Stanley asserts that the decision to believe the best is rooted in an organization’s culture of trust. And who’s responsible for establishing this environment? It’s leaders.

So, with a brand new year abreast and the excitement you have right now, what will you do when your experiences collide head-on with your expectations? How will you establish your expectations that are clearly understood moving forward?

4 Tips for When Reality Hits

There is a reoccurring story that I often hear when talking with young professionals. It goes like this: “I was so excited to start this new job. The school and the people here are great. The first few weeks were busy, but I’m enjoying the work that I get to do. At this point I’m struggling with my supervisor; I don’t understand what she wants from me. I feel like we’re on different pages.” As these conversations continue, I usually realize that these young leaders are facing an expectation gap. The honeymoon phase is over, reality has hit, and the job is not what they were imagining it would be like.

These can be discouraging times. They elicit judgment and cynicism, and they can easily tempt us to just quit and walk away. Not a great option. So how do we respond when we find ourselves in the gap?

1. Expectation Audit - Do you know what your expectations were to begin with? List them. If you don’t know what your expectations were, figure them out now. List them.

2. Identify - Identify and acknowledge the gap between your initial expectations and what has now come to fruition in your experience. Simply stating that this has happened can begin to help. This is helpful to do alone, but even better if it can be done with all of the people involved.

3. Recognize Unmet Expectations - Take a look at your list from number one. Evaluate these expectations. Which ones were not met?

4. Set New Expectations - Finding yourself in a gap does not mean the game is over. Take the time to recalibrate and adjust your expectations for moving forward.

4 Ways to Avoiding Gaps

Can we avoid a gap from ever happening? Probably not completely, but we can be intentional to avoid it if at all possible.

For some time I taught an elective course for students pursuing a minor in leadership studies. I was excited to teach students who chose this course--they really wanted to be there! During one semester, however, by midterm, it seemed that very few of them wanted to be there and class discussion was anemic. One afternoon, I expressed my disappointment, letting them know that my expectations had been sorely unmet. A quiet, yet bold, reply from one of my students returned, “We didn’t know that was what you wanted to see happen.” I felt embarrassed. There I stood, proud of my ability to work in a “teaching moment” about the expectation gap, and I had failed to clarify those expectations myself.

Many expectation gaps in our lives can be avoided by communicating well with those around us. I could have bypassed a significant gap with my students had I stood up on the first day of class and clearly stated my excitement for robust discussion and anticipation for involvement. Were these expectations present? Of course, they just weren’t clearly expressed. A leader understands the importance of clearly communicating what is expected.

Try the following as you set up new expectations.

1. Take Inventory - You need to know what your expectations really are. Some of these will always be consistent because of who you are and how you work. At times, however, they will change with circumstances. Make sure you know what expectations you have for particular situations.

2. Clarify - Leaders must learn how to communicate expectations with clarity. It is a necessary skill in leadership. Do this in writing whenever possible.

3. Ask Others - The best leaders not only state their own expectations but also ask others what their own expectations are. By sharing expectations upfront, gaps are preemptively identified and avoided before it is too late.

4. Check-In - Just like regular car maintenance, our leadership journeys need regular check-in times. This includes expectation checks on a regular basis. Fix the gaps before they grow into canyons.

The expectation gaps in our leadership experiences can be devastating. Good leaders establish and communicate their expectations on a regular basis and they know how to respond well when unexpected realities surprise them.

So, happy new year! Expect great things, but make them clear for everyone, including yourself.

Reimagining the Student Experience: Formative Practices for Changing Times, edited by Brian Jensen & Sarah Visser will be released in July 2019. The book is designed to help professionals doing the good work of student affairs in Christian colleges and universities.

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