The tricky task of setting expectations with Partners

These partners are aligned in all respects. The only difference is that they point in different directions. Source: Pixabay

I launched a marketing campaign that I knew would be a winner. I asked my partner to make seven of their staff available for phone support. When the calls flooded in, only three people were there to answer the phone. Calls went unanswered and revenue was lost.

The product was right. The campaign was good. The forecasts were accurate. The communication had failed.

Most conflicts in most relationships stem from misaligned expectations. Expectations are the most functional communications in a Partnership because they either ask for something or give something to your partner. These actions (giving and taking) are why the Partnership exists. Our failure to properly set expectations with partners leads to failed cooperation which impacts both parties and the Partnership itself.

Common errors with setting expectations: Communication

Often, we briefly summarise what we expect from partners or just assume they know what we want without even say it. We fail to fully explain the context for the request or ensure our partner’s understanding by using Active Speaking techniques. We should realise that our partner would prefer to spend a minute listening to our long explanation than hours explaining why things went wrong. For example, it’s better to communicate our expectations about who’s going to pay shipping costs when we submit than argue about who’s paying after the goods have been delivered.

Common errors with setting expectations: Perception

Improving communication is simple and easy. Addressing perceptions isn’t. You need to set and maintain the Perception of Expectations. This is the difference between what you SAY you expect and what your partner THINKS you expect. A range of factors influence how your partner understands your expectations. Some of the factors that influence a partner’s Perception of Expectations are examined below using my marketing campaign from above as the example.

  • Experience with past partners: e.g. other partners often over-estimate the need for support staff
  • Personal experience: e.g. when our partner ran campaigns, he never met his forecasts so he didn’t trust mine
  • Experience with my company: e.g. my company had a reputation for asking for too many support staff
  • Experience with me: e.g. forecasts for my previous marketing campaign were not met so he assumed the same would happen again

Even though I clearly communicated my request, my partner’s Perception of Expectations led him to provide what he thought I needed and not what I asked for.

How to avoid this mistake

Here are some tips to stop this happening:

  • Think through and address all elements connected with my request; from ideation to delivery. The fewer open items, the less chance one of them will trip you up.
  • Give context and be specific with your request. Compare these two requests “I want 7 units ASAP” with “I want 7 fully-functional units delivered to me at the Exhibition next Tuesday”. You have to be that careful when communicating.
  • Provide justifications for your request so your partner realises it’s reasonable. I should have explained that the reason I expected strong demand was that I’d spent more on my marketing campaign than ever.
  • Go beyond your level of comfort by raising items that your partner may not want to hear. e.g. talk about the returns policy for sub-standard products. It’s uncomfortable to discuss the possibility of sub-standard products before the relationship even begins but it saves more uncomfortable conversations, later.
  • Test that your partner has the same understanding that you have. Ask specific questions like “Have you got the resources necessary to deliver this? Have you done something like this in the past?”

Misaligned expectations are always your fault. Even if only 20% of the blame sits with you, I’m sure you can think of what you could have done differently to avoid the misalignment. Each partner probably thinks they’ve done the right thing so if neither side makes an effort to reconcile, it will fester. Acknowledge what you could have done better and limit damage to the Partnership.


In the week ahead, think of your key Partnerships:

  • Have I over-explained my expectations to ensure they are clear to my Partner? Did I test that we our expectations are aligned?
  • Do I behave in a way that should make my Partner take my requests at face value?
  • Did I avoid raising issues with my Partner because it would be uncomfortable and leave myself vulnerable to misaligned expectations down the track?
  • If something went wrong, was I proactive in seeking a resolution and take the blame that was due to me?

Other Blogs in the Art of Partnership Series:

Understanding Business Relationships

Transforming a Relationship into a Partnership

Building Negotiating Power in a Partnership

Communication Mistakes Corrupting your Parntership

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