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Where Do Your Work Expectations Come From?

For decades, much research on work stress has focused on several topics: control/autonomy over work, the meaningfulness of work, and support structures from supervisors, organizational leadership, and colleagues.

One of my bugbears is how infrequently these things get talked about in mainstream business press, most of which focus on more perfunctory interventions to help employees manage their stress, such as breathing exercises, taking breaks, and leaving work at work. None of this is bad advice, it's just inadequate advice because it ignores the root of the problem, or even that dealing with work stress in a two-sided coin of appropriate employee resilience for the given profession (per my previous piece), and employer awareness of what should, and shouldn't be expected.

One of the reasons for this kind of advice is that it doesn't require any digging - when we're all so busy. I understand this on many levels, but if surface-level band-aids are enough, then perhaps we should all just have a gin and tonic at three in the afternoon - it would surely make the last few hours less stressful!

A bigger (and deeper) question for managing work stress is where do employee expectations come from? On the one hand, we are told that everyone is an individual, that we are all different, and that no two people are the same. On the other hand, we are told that "humans are humans", and we often refer to things people do as just being "human nature". So which is true, and how does this shape our expectations for our work?

The answer is that we each have a constellation of identities in our private and professional life. Mine include being a husband, father, management professor, consultant, and a British expat in America. I am also an avid supporter of a very poor sports team in the UK. Detroit Lions fans I'm sure you can relate. Within each of these identities is a set of norms, and expectations that are neither completely personal to us, or generalized to every other person. Dads share many norms about what it is to be a dad, without all being identical dads.

Now apply this to your work. What is your job title? Your profession? Who do you say you are when you introduce yourself to others (i.e., when networking)? If you are, for example, a senior financial advisor, you will have your own identity in that role; but will share many traits, work habits, formal training paths, and daily routines with other senior financial advisors in yours, and other organizations.

It stands to reason that when you transition from one job with this identity to another that you carry many of these expectations with you - even though each company you work for will have slight adjustments in their identity, and in their expectations of you. You will consciously or unconsciously compare your current job to previous ones in that role. If you're a manager or leader, it's easy to forget that your charges are doing this too...nearly all the time.

Now imagine how well formed that identity is - and that set of normative expectations for the role are - for people who have held multiple jobs in that role, or profession. Please ponder that for just a moment. These people surely have a very well defined, if not calcified set of expectations.

Surely that is a good starting place when designing jobs, writing job descriptions, undergoing recruitment, hiring, socialization, and training programs within your organization: What are the normative expectations for this role, or position?

It sounds so simple, and in some ways it is. But do you honestly think, or feel like every organization you have worked for has done that effectively? If I may politely challenge the leaders amongst you, have you consciously thought about this each time you hire someone, or have you just expected them to adapt, and shelve any aspect of their normative professional identity that doesn't fit with how the job is done at your organization? Again, it's understandable when we are all so busy; but hopefully I've piqued your curiosity.

In my next two posts, I will outline some critical ways organizations can fall off track in this endeavor, and what that can mean for work stress, and all the fallout of disengagement, poor work, and unwanted turnover. Early research findings show that it accounts for strains (e.g., tension, burnout), and desire to leave the organization above and beyond the aforementioned work stress pillars of control, work meaningfulness, and support. I will also outline ways this can be fixed, or remediated, if things have gone awry.

Stay tuned, and look out for upcoming events on On Tuesday March 9th I'm hosting a seminar called "Your Work Stress and Misaligned Role Expectations". You can find out more and register here. I am also going to start offering pre-recorded training courses. Your feedback here on which topics would be most useful, would be welcomed.

Drop me a line if you would like to have a virtual coffee. If you lead a team, or organization I would love to hear where and how you see unnecessary stress (that is, beyond what you think it should be) come into play, and how it might be costing you. I'm all ears and I'm ready to help.

In the meantime, sign-up here for my updates (usually 2-3 a month) on identifying, understanding, and dealing with work stress for healthy, high performing organizations. You can also download my free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool, which will help identify the root causes of your work stress, and what to do about them.

Have a great week.



Marcus Fila, Ph.D., is an organizational analyst and industrial/organizational psychologist. He is an associate professor of management at Hope College; and a researcher, speaker, and consultant on work stress. Download his free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

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