The Principle of No Surprises

After the performance reviews, happening in every company at regular intervals, were you, or somebody you care about, in situations like these:

“I think I deserve a promotion — for all of the good work I did the whole year! I’m really unpleasantly surprised I didn’t get one!”

“I was expecting a 10% percent raise this fall, I’m really surprised that only got 3%. Now I’m really thinking of changing jobs!”

“I think I did a great job the whole year, but my lead told me during our performance review meeting, that she thinks that I was one of the least productive members of the team. I’m stunned!”

In case you want to prevent this kind of situations from ever happening again, read further: the principle of “no surprises” is here to help!

What is it all about?

This principle is applied in many domains:

“People are part of the system. The design should match the user’s expectations […]”.

What this mean is that “If a necessary feature has a high astonishment factor, it may be necessary to redesign the feature.” — Cowlishaw, M. F.

  • In software development, by using this principle you can recognize “clean code”:
“You know you are working on clean code when each routine you read turns out to be pretty much what you expected.”— Ward Cunningham

In other words, “clean code” is code without “surprises”.

  • In change management, having no surprises is really important as it creates an atmosphere of trust. “To effectively prepare for change, employees have to be conditioned to expect it.”

In this article, we’ll learn how to apply the principle of “no surprises” in people management. In this context, the principle helps you and your manager to be aligned on how far you have progressed with regards of your performance and career development.

Performance Review Cycles

In most companies, employees are expected — with the support of their managers — to drive their careers forward. Every one of them sets goals for the next performance review cycle, by using a company specific framework.

The principle of “no surprises” says that you deserve to know, at each moment, where your manager thinks you are in terms of performance and career development, so that at the end of the evaluation cycle you don’t have surprises related the results of your performance review.

On the other hand, at the end of the evaluation cycle, your manager should not look surprised when you share your view on your progress in terms of career development and performance. Also she should not be surprised when you tell her about what you think your reward should be, because of the good work you did during the previous year.

This principle encourages a constant alignment of expectations between you and your manager. This alignment should happen during the one on one meetings you and your manager should have during the year. In these meetings, the manager should provide constructive feedback and also encourage you seek feedback from your colleagues.

You are in the same team as your manager

In terms of people management, both you and your manager have the same goal, to bring you to the next level, both in terms of knowledge and performance.

You want this because learning new things and becoming better creates a feeling of fulfillment which ultimately makes you enjoy the work you’re doing and makes you happy. Also because that’s how usually you can get a promotion and are financially rewarded.

On the other side, your manager wants to have people who take more and more responsibility, whose performance constantly improves and who are becoming better and better.

In order get the promotion you dream of, you need the support of your manager. It’s part of your manager’s responsibility to help you get the raise or promotion you think you deserve, by providing constant feedback with regards of what you should improve. Openly discussing about this topic is a win-win situation for both of you: you are both in the same team!

Probation Period

While applying the principle of “no surprises” in the everyday work is really important, applying it during the probation period is crucial. This is because during probation, the cost of misalignment is even higher. In the worst cases, this leads to the employee leaving the company, which is costly for both the employee and the company. Probation is the time in which the employee gets used to the company culture, to the way of working. It’s a period of learning, aligning and setting expectation. It’s really important for the manager to setup constant feedback sessions. And in case this doesn’t happen, it’s up to the employee to set them up — your job is at stake here, isn’t it?

Who should start the discussion

Good managers recognize the importance of continuous feedback and have periodic one on one meetings with their employees. In case this doesn’t happen, you, as an employee, should give the feedback to your manager that you expect this from her.

Another winner

When these alignment discussions are constantly happening there is yet another winner: your company. Constantly aligning expectations is good for the business!

For companies is really important to be able to keep the morale of the employees high after each performance review cycle. Having “no surprises” might sound boring for some people but for a company this translates to stability — and stability translates to a low attrition rate.

On the other side, when these discussions don’t take place, and employees get different “surprises” during performance review, the morale gets low: low morale brings low performance which has an effect an all of the employees in the company and on the company’s overall performance.


The Principle of “no surprises”, applied to to people management, directly translates to continuous feedback between the managers and the employees. Constant continuous feedback creates a culture of trust and a win-win situation for all parties.