8 consequences of unrealistic expectations at work

By Robert Half on 12 April 2022
Estimated Read Time: 4 minutes

Do you often find yourself setting unrealistic expectations at work for your staff?

Perhaps you set deadlines that you don't realise are impossible? Maybe you sometimes ask for unachievable results? Or you may occasionally expect employees to complete projects with a limited team, or inadequate budget?

Whilst you may think that setting super-ambitious goals can help your team achieve more than if a much lower target was set, it may in reality have a far-reaching effect on your employees and your overall business success.

Here are eight examples of short and long-term consequences of unrealistic expectations at work:

1. Missed delivery dates

Setting unrealistic expectations at work means that it’s increasingly unlikely that your team will be able to achieve them.

If your team regularly misses targets, this could lead to questions raised from your own manager, asking why your team are underachieving.

2. Reduced work quality

To achieve unrealistic expectations, employees may be forced to rush work, cut corners and not take proper care.

This can lead to mistakes and poor quality outcomes.

3. Overrunning costs

If you set your budget based on unrealistic expectations, you may be surprised when project costs overrun.

If your deadline is also unrealistic, staff may need to spend longer on the project and work overtime, which all adds to your overall cost.

4. Increase in absenteeism

If expectations of employees are too high, this could lead to them taking time off work for stress related illnesses.

This only increases the pressure, as the rest of your team will need to meet set targets with one less pair of hands.

5. Low morale

Staff often get a buzz from hitting their targets. However, if that goal is constantly unrealistic, employees can feel like they’re not achieving.

This can impact self-esteem, motivation, and productivity, which can damage your bottom-line.

Related: 3 signs of struggling office morale and how to counteract them

6. Staff may aim lower

If targets are regularly set too high, staff will constantly fail to meet them. Over time, this failure can almost become accepted.

As a result, staff may no longer try their absolute hardest, even if targets are lowered. This can have a detrimental effect on all future projects.

7. Lose respect

Staff want to feel like they’re achieving their targets but are instead constantly being set up for failure.

So, if you keep asking for the impossible, you can quickly lose the respect of your whole team.

8. Higher staff turnover

If staff feel like they can never, and will never, be able to meet your unrealistic expectations, they may feel like their only option is to resign.

Not only do you lose valuable knowledge and expertise, there’s even more chance that the remainder of your team will begin to exit your company.

Related: Feeling a wave of employee turnover? Here are 12 ways to turn the tide

6 ways to create a more productive and effective workplace

As you can see, setting unrealistic expectations at work for staff can have serious ramifications. It can not only effect employees themselves, but also the business and ultimately its success. It’s therefore important for this behaviour to stop.

Make a change now by following these six steps:

  1. Recognise the issues – The first step is realising that you set unrealistic expectations. Review previous projects, or ask your team if they think your targets are fair or unobtainable.
  2. Think before setting expectations – Just because you want something to be completed within a month, doesn’t mean it can be completed in that timeframe. Take a step back and consider the amount of work required and what resources you have available, before setting a deadline. This also applies to expectations that are being pushed on you from above too.
  3. Clearly define requirements – Whilst deadlines may at first seem reasonable, these can quickly become unrealistic if more requirements are added. To avoid any surprises or missed deadlines, clearly outline requirements and targets right from the start.
  4. Use your employee’s experience – Instead of relying on guesswork, speak to your team about how long they think a project will take and what resources will be needed. You may even find that if they are involved in setting deadlines and budgets, they will be more committed to meeting them.
  5. Re-estimate – If you realise you’re not going to make a certain deadline, don’t just let staff struggle. Discuss with staff how much longer they need. This will give employees something more realistic and achievable to aim for.
  6. Support your staff – Instead of setting expectations and then putting increased pressure on staff to perform, try supporting your team as much as possible (this might include mentoring) to help them achieve the best they can. Remember that the best leaders don’t manage; they lead!

Learn from Robert Half’s expert recruiters so you can build a talented team of employees or advance your career. Operating in over 300 locations worldwide and as one of the leading recruitment firms in Hong Kong, Robert Half can provide you with assistance where and when you need it.

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