Standards vs. Expectations

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

[email protected]


A business owner from Florida called me the other day ostensibly to talk about human resources issues, though that was a thinly veiled ruse to ultimately vent about his employees. You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. We all have heard it. And it is true! The American workforce is not what it used to be.

Feel better now?

By the way, gasoline is no longer $1.49 a gallon, a six-pack of anything is no longer 99 cents, and the minimum wage is no longer $2.50 an hour. Welcome to the present, and now say hello to H.G. Wells.

Acknowledgment is not a consequence; it is an invitation. We readily acknowledge that life, values, and costs have changed over the years. That acknowledgment does not preordain surrender, despair, or failure; it stimulates adaptation. American business owners are insightful problem solvers, sage leaders, and intellectual capitalists with perennial testimony of their effectiveness, creativity, and success.

If they cannot overcome these dynamic times triumphantly, maybe American business owners, are not the insightful problem solvers, sage leaders, and intellectual capitalists they used to be.

During the Florida business owner’s emotional and justifiable dirge, I interjected that reality is what it is; no sense in waxing nostalgic, promoting pretense, or modeling rose-colored glasses. By extension, I informed him that he must quickly learn to differentiate between standards and expectations.

Standards are desired levels of performance. Getting 90% or higher on a history test is the academic standard to get a grade of “A.” Having every employee show up for work at 6:30 a.m. each workday is the company attendance policy standard. No workplace injuries are the company safety standard. No vacant positions are the company staffing standard. 50% gross margin is the company productivity standard.

By way of contrast, expectations are the probabilities that a standard will be met. It is the relative belief that a goal will be attained. What are the odds that you will get an “A” on that history test? How much are you willing to bet that every employee will show up to work at 6:30 a.m. each workday? Do you really think there will be no workplace injuries this year? What is the likelihood that there will be no vacant positions for more than a week? How confident are you the company will achieve a 50% gross margin this year?

The American workforce has indeed changed, forever. The lack of personal initiative, conscientious pride, and relentless aspiration are apocalyptically self-evident. That said, business owners must maintain their standards (e.g., high-quality work, business ethics, company success), despite the honest, albeit frustrating, assessment that their current expectations are not commensurate to what they once were.

They must not lower their standards. Instead, they must modify their business acumen, interpersonal skills, and leadership style to incrementally improve their expectations of success. Get out of the office; meet directly with employees in the yard at 6:15 a.m. each workday, on the job site, and when you hand deliver their paychecks to them each week; actually begin to “partner” with vendors, suppliers, and clients; become more of a coach and less of an executive; drive accountability through rewards and recognition, bonuses, and incentives rather than turning a hypocritical blind-eye to be politically correct; attend a conference, hire a consultant, work with a business coach instead of listening to the person in the mirror. Don’t conflate standards with expectations; while expectations have rightfully depreciated, standards must remain absolute in that they define you.

At its essence, dropping standards to accommodate one’s expectations because the American workforce is not what it used to be, is actually probative evidence supporting the belief that American business owners, are not the insightful problem solvers, sage leaders, and intellectual capitalists they used to be.

Check Out Harvester Steve Cesare’s


Harvest Group Partners



Click the icon below to download the Harvest Group Mobile app!

What do you want to learn more about?

The Harvesters want to know what topics you would like to see us discuss. Click below to submit your ideas!


Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.