The current political climate in Northern Ireland has a distinctly Dickensian feel about it. Our respective Ministers, mere weeks into their roles and recognising the scale of the task ahead are adopting the Oliver Twist ‘Please Sir… I want some more!’ approach – as they make their case for funding to the new Finance Minister. He, in turn, is taking the collective begging bowl to Mr Bumble – in this case, the UK Treasury to demand the necessary funding not only to meet current financial needs (an extra £600m seemingly) but to realise the vision of the recent deal that resulted in the restoration of Stormont. Continuing the Dickens’ analogy, unfortunately, many commentators expect that the Treasury response will be more Scrooge-like as relationships there seem a little strained, post the RHI fallout.
After the fanfare of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal has faded into the distance our politicians are waking up to the realities that the list of promises made in the deal, clearly cobbled together in some haste, all come with a significant price tag. To many observers, it is a long wish list with little detail and has set Dickensesque ‘Great Expectations’ which will be very hard to meet.
Against this backdrop, it would appear that the challenge ahead for our politicians and their advisors will be an exercise in expectation management.
Elliot Larson writes that “Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” Coming after 3 years of political inertia, maybe people’s expectations are understandably low here, but there is no escaping the fact that the promises of the new deal reflect a wide range of aspirations that simply may not be achievable – at least not in the short to medium term.
Can good communications advice help them to avoid alienating and angering the people once more? The reality is that ‘doing a good job’ is often subjective and very much in the eye of the beholder. One way to improve the effectiveness and deliver on expectations is to proactively manage those expectations more effectively. What and how you communicate here is key. The better you can manage people’s expectations, the better you can reduce surprises as well as correct and adjust your course along the way.
It is important that our politicians don’t sugar-coat everything and equally articulate the risks and the challenges ahead. It can be easy to get caught up on focusing on all the positives and deliberately avoiding the risks or challenges. The hard choices facing the health service is a point in case. To achieve the change required it is going to mean some difficult and sometimes unpopular choices and the public’s expectations need to be managed throughout.
Calling out the risks, and demonstrating you have a fallback plan for issues that can arise is arguably a more effective strategy. It shows you’ve thought through the problem and anticipated different potential outcomes. This also helps frame that things can go wrong or be less than the ideal, and if they do, nobody should be overly surprised. Leading software architects Malveau and Mowbray, writing about the importance of expectation management, said:
“Expectation management is one of the most powerful weapons in psychological warfare. In expectation management, people take their instinctual need to disparage the ideas of others and use the technique consciously, regarding their own ideas as they present them to other people.”
This basically means taking away a would-be critic’s thunder to shoot your ideas down. It also demonstrates that you have been thinking about the approach and are well aware of the risks and more importantly will seek to manage them.
In looking at the current budget realities (although money is not the only obstacle to success here it has to be said), our politicians may also be advised to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal and the subsequent Programme for Government. Malveau and Mowbray also write about this concept.
“This technique is essential for group dynamics. One should always promise less than can actually be delivered. One should tell people clearly what they are expected to do and explain the caveats (i.e., expectation management), and often they will overachieve.”
The opposite approach is to over-promise and under-deliver, which is a recipe for disaster, even when there are very good reasons for things to go wrong. That said, they would have to be careful as while under-promising and over-delivering is a good rule of thumb, the risk is that you underwhelm people and lose their support. It’s all about striking the right balance.
With this challenge, it is also important to sustain communication and keep your stakeholders informed throughout. It is vital that you know what’s going on and consistently tell the people who care – be it stakeholders or the public. Nobody likes surprises. Involving people earlier versus surprising them later will always be more effective over time. It will help build trust and manage expectations more effectively.
There has been a lot of talk about this Assembly and Executive being different with much more collegiality around decisions being promised. It remains to be seen whether this comes to pass but given the size of the challenge (and it must be said the opportunity), alongside the reality of the budget and the other difficulties ahead, this approach is essential if it is to succeed and endure this time around.
The moral of the story here is that just doing a good job won’t be enough. Managing the public’s expectations especially as the stakes go up, will become increasingly important in how the work of the Assembly and Executive is received, acknowledged, and rewarded. Dickens writes in Great Expectations “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” Let’s hope that also rings through for Stormont this time.
Kieran Donnelly, Director
Image Credit: Cineguild Productions