How birthday cake taught me to set expectations!

This week my preschool daughter has a birthday.  As I’m sure you can imagine, the levels of excitment are growing almost minute by minute as we count down to her party, presents and birthday cake.  The cake…….. now here the pressure really starts to mount.  We’ve had plenty of discussion about the theme, colour and overall look of the cake, so I thought I was pretty safe.  I’ve planned out a simple, yet fabulous, pink princess castle, that is just within the boundaries of my baking abilities. Great……or so I thought.

My daughter came to me having browsed through my various cake books and found a picture of something which I struggle to describe due to it’s sheer complexity.  Think of the most elaborate, multi-tiered wedding cake that you’ve ever seen, then double it, add some turrets, a fountain, some unicorns….get the picture?

“I want this one”

Yikes.  I realised that I have failed already.  What I’ve done is set an expectation that there is complete and free choice when it comes to this decision.  But there wasn’t.  I failed to make clear that there is an element of choice (pink or white?/square or round?), but that the options do have a limit.

How often do we do this in the workplace?  We either allow people to think that there is choice where there isn’t (“have a think about your targets for the year ahead”), or we give them choice but without the accurate limits around that choice.  We can be falsely led into thinking that we have to try and get people to believe they are coming to their own decisions about things in order to get their buy-in, but sometimes this is dishonest, and it’s just a fear of giving bad news that leads us into offering hope of choice where there is none.  I’ve seen it happen many times – you have a really talented team member that you fear losing, and so allow them to believe that there is promotion, progression, payrise on the horizon, or you fail to make clear the limitations of a role that someone is taking on, allowing them to think that they will have creative freedom.

All this does is raise hope, and then lead to disappointment or disengagement.  It also erodes your credibility as a manager.  We need to be honest – give options and choices where they exist, but don’t raise false hope as the disappointment will be even greater.

Wish me luck with the cake.

Clare Portman

My passion: Helping people do the things they never thought they could achieve.

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