“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

— Charles Kettering


A fairly common scoring method in employee performance reviews uses a range of scores from 0 to 5, with “meeting expectations” equal to 2.5. Five is defined as “consistently among the best performance ever seen.” Sometimes, particularly when a relatively new employee is given their first performance review, employees are surprised and disappointed with a score of 2.5.

“Why am I only getting scores in the two’s? I’m used to getting high scores in my performance review.”

“Imagine I am filling a position. I narrow the search down to the final three candidates. They are identical except their grade point average. One is a C student, one is a B student, and one is an A student. Which do I hire?”

“Of course the A student,” the employee answers.

“And once they are on the job, what quality of work should I expect? A work, B work or C work?”

“Since you hired them because they were A students, you would logically expect A work from them, wouldn’t you?”

“I do, yes. And I hired you because you have a track record of A work. I expected A work, and I am getting A work. I am getting just what I expected, and that is defined as a 2.5; meeting expectations.”

Some people are not okay with this. They want to be highly praised for doing just what they are paid for. And while giving regular, informal praise is highly appropriate, it is misleading and counterproductive to tell someone in a performance review that they are exceeding your expectations when they are not. It does not give them the feedback they need to do better, and if their performance gets better and better, it doesn’t give you much room at the upper end of the scale.

High performance employees understand the system and use it to their advantage. They listen to the feedback about where they can improve their performance and adapt their work to accomplish that improvement. They ask what it will take to get a score of 3, 4 or 5, and then work hard to do what it takes.

Is it appropriate to have such high expectations? Should supervisors be more content with performance they find to be simply adequate? The answer can be rather complex, but get it gets down to supply and demand. If there are many people that can do this type of work in your area, logically, your expectations can be higher.

But it is also a matter of strategy. For instance, if your strategy is to offer very high levels of customer service, and the position in question serves customers, it only makes sense to have high expectations for that position. To do otherwise may put the organization at risk.

Some questions to assist forming a position on expectations:

♦ What is your employee turnover rate? Hold exit interviews with departing employees to see why they are leaving. If people are leaving in large numbers because of high expectations, it may indicate a need to make changes.

♦ What is the average tenure of your employees? If your staff tends to stay for many years, it would suggest that your expectations are not too high.

♦ How long do open positions remain empty? If you have a line of qualified applicants for open positions, you may have favorable market conditions.

♦ How is employee morale? Regular — likely annual — employee surveys cannot only tell you how employees feel, but can also tell you if morale is getting better or worse. Informally, seek employee feedback.

And some suggestions:

♦ Make sure position descriptions are up-to-date and clearly state expectations in a way that is consistent with how their performance will be reviewed. Share the position description with job candidates.

♦ Include training as a part of your hiring process. Training during the first few days in mandatory, but should be ongoing.

♦ Give informal feedback — positive and negative — very regularly.

♦ Ask for informal feedback from the employee.

♦ Give formal feedback, in the form of a performance review, early on. A 90-day review is a good idea.

♦ Provide your employees context to understand your expectations. If you need high performance in order to remain competitive, explain this to them.

Dave Bartholomew and his wife Nancy are retired and living outside of Leavenworth. He and Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities.