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Updated: 03/10/2013 08:02:24AM

Set high expectations, not low

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S.L. Frisbie

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“Most people will perform at the level they are expected to perform; establish these expectations and make them known.” — Frisbie’s Second Law


The foregoing is from “Frisbie’s Laws: 20 Surefire Rules for Successful Management,” a book I published after retiring from my 46-year career in newspaper management.

In those years, I learned 20 things about management that I felt might be worth sharing. So far, I have shared them with 151 people; additional copies of the book remain available.

The idea behind Frisbie’s Second Law is that managers should set high expectations, and generally they will be met. But the converse also applies.

If management makes it clear that it not only accepts but expects mediocre performance, its expectations almost certainly will be met.

Many parents are familiar with the conventional wisdom that if you tell a child often enough that he is stupid, or mean, or sloppy, you eventually will end up with a stupid, mean, sloppy kid. Even children understand expectations.


Adults, especially those in high positions of leadership, are supposed to be more savvy in their skills, but some aren’t. Probably haven’t read my book.

Many — perhaps most — managers in private enterprise are familiar with the concept of “doing more with less” when times get tight, or at least maintaining the same level of performance.

One of my favorite managers in the newspaper industry, as the Great Recession closed in on us, declared that any business can get by with 10 percent fewer employees. I don’t doubt that he is correct.

But the paradigm in government, especially at the federal level, is different.

President Obama set the expectations of the federal government as this phenomenon known at “sequester” loomed: reduce the money given to federal agencies, and their performance will surely decline.

As he stood by and blamed Congress — the Republicans in Congress — for fomenting crisis by refusing to raise taxes to keep government running at its bloated best, predicting dire consequences, he set his expectation.

But when sequester arrived, he backed off, suggesting that under his leadership, the republic would emerge unscathed.

Apparently Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, didn’t get the memo.

As sequester became reality, she declared that the tortuously slow airport screening for which her agency is notoriously famous would get worse:

“If you’re traveling, get to the airport earlier ... 150 percent to 200 percent as long as we would usually expect ... The New York airports got through OK, but that’s going to be temporary. So we will see these effects cascade over the next week.”

And just how great is the impact of sequestration: I have heard numbers of 2, 2.4, and 2.8 percent, nothing higher. So a shortfall of two or three employees for every hundred authorized equates to a 150 to 200 percent decline in performance?

A member of Congress interviewed by one of the networks said he could not imagine that the federal government was operating with such precision that a workforce reduction of 2 percent would create a crisis of mediocre performance.

And he was correct ... unless management made it clear that mediocrity was what management expected, in which case those expectations will be met.

Napolitano is not the only bureaucrat to declare that the sky is falling, but she certainly was a leader, and at that, she was reflecting the expectations declared by her boss, the president.


Creating hardship for the end customer — the taxpayer — is nothing new. Many years ago, faced with a requirement to cut the Polk County budget during hard times, a county manager responded by grounding the county’s mosquito spray aircraft. It produced the expected outcry from taxpayers.

Instead of reducing service to the taxpayers, how about reducing the number of gatekeepers who keep managers from having to answer their own phones, transferring those employees to more critical duties? The managers might miss them, but it is doubtful the taxpayers would.

If, as demonstrated by my publisher friend, private enterprise can operate with 10 percent fewer employees when times get tough, is it possible that the federal government can operate at 98 percent manning?

If the right people are managing, of course it is.

But if the expectation is mediocrity, that, too, can be achieved.


(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He processes orders for his book himself. You can order your copy at

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