Husnara Begum Head & Shoulders ImageDo you hate being let down? I certainly do. Indeed, it’s by far one of my biggest pet hates in a work-related context. Whether that’s missing a deadline, cancelling at the last minute, or submitting a piece of work that doesn’t quite hit the mark. They’re all reasons a plenty for colleagues and clients to quickly lose confidence and or trust in you.

That said, none of us are infallible and there’ll inevitably be times when we have to let others down. But if you want to soften the blow, it’s vitally important to manage expectations. In its most extreme form, I’d say this involves under-selling and over-delivering. But this may not always be appropriate.

As I’ve set out below, there are more subtle ways of managing expectations, which apply equally well to colleagues and clients alike.

  1. Don’t rush to say yes. It’s better to politely decline (or at least think it through properly) a request you’d prefer not to take on or you simply won’t have time to compete. Personally, I’ve recently had a few loose connections offer to write blogs for CheekyLittleCareers and subsequently never heard back from them despite sending chaser messages. Such behaviour will not win those individuals any favours longer-term and is frankly bordering on the unprofessional. And I certainly will not be engaging with them ever again. In such a situation, a simple no or can I come back to this later would’ve been preferable. For more tips on how to politely push back and say ‘no’ please do check out my previous blog: Stop saying sorry and learn to say no.
  2. Communicate clearly and ask open questions. When you have work delegated to you from a senior colleague or are taking on an instruction from a client make sure you have absolute clarity on what the ‘task’ or ‘request’ is as well as the context. You could even go further and ask your colleague if they’ve thought of ‘how’ they’d like you to approach the task / deliver on the request. Related to this, if any parts of the instruction do not make sense flag this before ending the conversation and then summarise in your own words to ensure you’ve got a proper understanding of what’s needed of you (a follow-up email summarising the action points may also help if time is short and when the to-do list is quite bumper). In some instances, asking some of the following questions should also help:
  • How long would you like me to spend on this? Do you want me to do a ‘deep dive’ or a ‘quick and dirty’? Are there any particular areas you’d like me to spend more time on or leave to one side?
  • Would you like a detailed note or a simple list of bullet points?
  • What is my note / research going to be used for?
  • Can we agree a follow-up call / meeting on xxxxx so I can update you on my progress?
  • Can I break the task into two parts so I can work on xxxxxx in between?
  • This is a new area for me so it might take longer than usual and I’m also likely to have follow-up questions. What’s your availability like over the next few days in case I need to run anything further by you?
  1. Give advance warning. If a task is taking you longer than anticipated or you’re struggling to keep on top of your workload flag with the relevant people as soon as possible. Avoid doing this hours or minutes before the deadline unless it cannot be helped. The same applies to postponing meetings – think of the other person and give them as much warning as possible. Related to this, when a piece of work is handed to you be upfront and flag any obstacles that might stand in the way of you meeting the deadline as there may be scope for you to get some extra time.
  2. Ask for help. If you’re stuck and unsure how to move forward with a piece of work, there really is no need to sweat it out. Come clean as soon as possible and ask for help. If appropriate, speak to a more senior colleague or one of your friends in the team. Failing that, tell the person who gave the work to you. Honesty, I’ve learnt, is the best policy in such a situation.
  3. Be versatile. Everyone has their own way of working and I’d recommend figuring this out from the outset. Some of your senior colleagues are likely to be micro-managers who will want to be copied in on every single email and expect regular updates. Others, meanwhile, are likely to be much more hands-off. Aim to understand the working styles of your colleagues and openly discuss with them if they have any preferred ways for you to handle the tasks they delegate down to you and, if appropriate, learn to adapt and become more compatible to their style, whilst holding onto the authentic version of yourself.

Husnara Begum, associate coach and contributing editor