High expectations will motivate your staff

Sut I Wong

Many of us do a better job when we are free to decide how to do it. Will you take the risk and set your staff free?

Knowledge @BI: Empowerment

Just think how much more fun it is to have the liberty to determine your own workday, rather than have your boss hanging over you. The boss has no need to. He or she is confident you have the necessary skills to get the job done on your own.

Many organisations are keen to empower their staff and give them more of a say in how work tasks can best be carried out.

They decide

Workers will feel greater ownership of their jobs, and that might lead to more motivated staff, because they find their jobs more enjoyable and meaningful.

Imagine your boss telling you in detail what to do. You will of course do as asked in the best way possible, but perhaps you would have done a better job if you had been able to make more use of your expertise. That, in turn, would have led to better performance.

However, there is also a dilemma in giving staff more power. Some employees will find their role becoming unclear. How will they know what they can and cannot decide for themselves?

“The key is to create a joint understanding between supervisors and staff of what is expected from a particular employee,” says Associate Professor Sut I Wong Humborstad at BI Norwegian Business School.

Good for the organisation

With Professor Bård Kuvaas at BI, Humborstad has conducted a study among 33 supervisors and 168 employees to see whether employees’ view of their job was affected by the degree of shared expectations between the supervisor and employee as to how the work should be done.

The study shows that employees are more motivated in their work when their expectations are the same as those of the boss. The opposite is true if you have a boss who micromanages your workday. That doesn’t exactly spur you to dizzying heights of performance.

It is good both for the employee and the organisation when an employee has high expectations of independence, provided those expectations are recognised and shared by the boss, according to Humborstad.


“Staff are motivated when they are given responsibility. Expectations regarding this responsibility are very important in their own assessment of their work situation,” says the BI researcher.

If an employee has different expectations from the supervisor, the two will make a poor match.

Imagine that you have great expectations of working independently. If your supervisor does not share these high expectations of you, he or she could easily be seen as controlling. Not precisely a dream team!

And the other way round: If employees do not see the value of independent work, they will not necessarily be motivated by a boss who has high expectations that the employees will make their own decisions on how to perform their job.

This results in greater uncertainty as to how the work should be done. The employees will feel they have not received sufficient information on how to do their job.

We expect different things

“Supervisors must find out what expectations their employees have to independence in their work,” says Humborstad. Employees are not all alike. Some prefer to be told in detail what to do, while others blossom when they are set free to decide how to organise their workday.

The study shows that a shared understanding of work autonomy is not sufficient to create more motivated employees. If supervisors and employees agree that employees are not expected to take decisions, the employees will still feel more uncertain of how to do the work.

When supervisors and employees share an expectation of a high degree of independence, the employees feel more self-motivated and less unsure of how to do the work. This is a good basis for better performance.

Humborstad believes that the key to a successful organisational change is to manage expectations.

“As a leader you must show by your actions that you really want staff who assume greater responsibility in carrying out their tasks. Your reward will be happier staff and better performance for the organisation,” she says.


Humborstad, S. I. W., og Kuvaas, B. Mutuality in leader-subordinate empowerment expectation: Its impact on role ambiguity and intrinsic motivation. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(2), 2013 363-377. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.01.003.

Published 25. February 2015

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