Why Your Colleague’s Screw-Up May Be Your Fault

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“You don’t know what you don’t know.” This quippy phrase may seem self-evident to some skeptics, but its popularity points to how common it is for people to experience blind spots in their thinking–sometimes to their great peril.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous places to have blind spots is in the workplace. You count on others do their jobs, just as they count on you to do yours. But what happens when, as I’ve often observed with my work for Fringe PD, “doing the job” involves desired outcomes that are left unspoken, because the majority of the team thinks they are too obvious to say?

Related [Blind Spots That Plague Even The Best Leaders, Fast Company]

Welcome to the Expectation Void, where we fail to articulate what we want from others and then get upset when they don’t deliver. This invisible crevasse has been known to doom careers and damage relationships for those who fall into it–leaving victims scratching their heads as to where they even went wrong. Nowhere was this expectation advertised, so how could they have known they were screwing it up so royally?

Just as frustrating, the Expectation Void causes unnecessary strife for the people observing the alleged errors–the ones who are spinning their wheels (and whispering in the halls or gossiping over cocktails) as they obsessively wait for the other person to figure out the rules of the game. They experience pointless stress that reduces their cognitive capacities, which is less than ideal when you’re trying to run a successful business.

I see the Expectation Void crack open most often when it swallows a new professional who has had limited exposure to the norms of their industry.

They may be a first-generation professional or someone from a different background, region, or country. The more seasoned professionals who have been in the environment for a long time tend to forgo the nuanced guidance that these newcomers need to be successful. And entry-level staff may be overly cautious about asking too many questions for fear of looking stupid. But because they are on the periphery of the industry, their margin of error is much smaller, so the cost of a single miscommunication is much higher.

Troublesome phrases that clue me into the Expectation Void problem at an office sound like this: “Checking email overnight is part of the job. Everyone knows that.” Or, “It’s not worth saying anything at this point. She just doesn’t seem to get it” Such assumptions that a behavior is implied or understood through pure observation cause problems that seem ridiculous in hindsight.

That’s because the Expectation Void can be easily avoided by simply checking your gut reaction. Whenever the thought arises that a colleague or employee “should know that already,” pause to consider whether the expectation at hand was ever confirmed. Was it verbalized or written? Is there a reason that they might NOT know? Take the time to ask about other people’s understanding, and challenge yourself to be more thoughtful in communicating. This is especially true for team leaders and managers who set and evaluate others’ performance. And if you’re a newcomer on the other side of the void, speak up and ask the uncomfortable questions. The alternative of muddling along in silence is likely to catch up with you, at a painful price.

My advice to Fringe PD clients staring down the Expectation Void is this: Start by doing just one thing different–and then watch how people react. The observation piece is critical because it helps you improve your understanding of the underlying causes that will continue to affect your workplace interactions, as well as to help you become a smarter, more effective communicator. Plus, without the time- and thought-consuming drama, we can all just get a more work done. And isn’t that what our clients expect?

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