Expectation management for IT leaders: Defining what, and when, to expect after COVID

After the pandemic, IT plays a greater role in teaching and learning, leading to new leadership challenges.
Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration's chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

This is the first in a series of thought leadership columns focused on the role of IT leaders in education.

The role of technology in education has forever changed because of the pandemic. IT is now an integral component of how teachers teach and students learn. With this new role comes new leadership challenges as IT departments transform their processes, procedures, and support models.

As IT leaders grapple with these challenges, there is often one leadership practice that is often overlooked or not well understood: expectation management. Neglecting to set and manage clear expectations has the potential to undermine the behavior, actions and results within a team, but it can also negatively impact engagement, relationships and teamwork. In this three-part series I will break down expectations, how to effectively manage them and what three key expectations K-12 leaders should focus on.

I have spoken many times on this topic and find it interesting that when I ask people if they understand expectation management, most say yes. When I dig a little deeper and ask them to define expectation management, I often receive varying responses, most of them vague and often don’t hit the core definition. So, let’s break this down to the basics. An expectation is a belief about what will happen in the future. Those beliefs are what guide our behaviors. Take a moment to think about this. If our beliefs about the future guide our behaviors, it isn’t hard to understand why a lack of them can be so disruptive.

If we reflect on the past and the disruption the pandemic caused, we must have an appreciation and understanding of three organizational realities:

  1. Current state. Do you as a leader understand at a strategic level the current state of your organization from a people, process, and technology perspective? Without this understanding, it will be very difficult to establish realistic and accepted expectations.
  2. Organizational fatigue. There is no doubt we are all dealing with it. If we don’t account for this reality and make appropriate adjustments, the changes we want to implement will fail.
  3. Organizational capacity. If, as leaders, we understand the current state and have accounted for organizational fatigue, we will be much more realistic about the number of changes we want to make as the new school year unfolds. If we don’t consider the current state and organizational fatigue, the likelihood of trying to do much and exceeding the capacity of the organization increases significantly.

Related: 3 ways school leaders and edtech partners can close learning gaps together

This brings us to another key element when understanding expectations: the three stages of change.

Current state

This state is like that old pair of slippers or your favorite T-shirt. It is comfortable and well understood, but most importantly, it is familiar. For employees, current state is how they have been successful and shown their value to the organization. For example, the way a teacher has taught students in their classroom, or the way our teams have provided support for staff onsite.

Transition state

This state is chaotic, disorganized, and frequently changing. It’s a very emotional state for employees who are full of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and confusion. Now, I want you to think about the emotional elements identified that are related to the transition state. At any given time, your employees could be experiencing these same emotions in their personal lives. As a leader, you must embrace the fact that in our current environment there are many additional factors that can impact your employees’ emotional state other than what needs to get done at work. The Transition state is where we are today, and it is where we have been since the pandemic first impacted our school systems.

Future state

This state is what your employees have been told the future will look like. It is supposed to be improved and where promises of better days occur. The future state and what your employees envision is completely dependent on what the messaging around this new frontier has been, who is delivering this message, and how consistent, honest and timely it has been. For your employees, the future state is also very personal. Everyone will be thinking about the future state and deciding if it is where he or she wants to be personally and/or professionally. It is these internal conversations that will cause the most apprehension. The future state is unknown, and we all must accept that fact.

Related: Edtech overload? Survey finds state education leaders could do more to help

As you can see, setting expectations is more than just stating what you want to happen. As leaders, we must pause and endeavor to understand the three organizational realities. We must also embrace the psychological aspects of how our employees behave and the resulting actions they will take. Remember, expectations are beliefs about the future and our beliefs are what guide behavior. We have been and continue to be in the Transition state, which is chaotic and uncertain. Our organizations are at capacity as well as fatigued, and your team needs to see a light at the end of the Transition tunnel. As a leader, are you defining the Future State?

In part II of this series, we will outline how as a leader you can effectively manage expectations.

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