Meets vs. Exceeds – Even Michael Jordan Had Issues With Setting Expectations Too High….

Back in the day at Fistful (which means April of 2008 – we’re like a here) I riffed a post on why explaining "meets vs. exceeds" to employees is like brushing your teeth on the treadmill.  That is to say it’s hard, primarily because it involves confrontation with employees who have long been told they’re above average.  Not superstars, but above average.  Then you come along and try to tell them that "meeting" expectations is good.  Sometimes that doesn’t go well.

FOT subscriber LK recently found that post and spins it from the employee’s side via the followingSuperstar question:

"I am having a disagreement with my (recently new) manager regarding what constitutes "meets" vs. "exceeds". He agrees I have done an outstanding job during a time when our department was at half its usual staffing. I trained younger staff, did sections of the job generally done by my former boss, and came up with innovative solutions that enabled us to meet all deadlines despite what all agree was a difficult period.

In my review he interpreted this as "meets expectations" because at my level it is expected I would do an exceptional job. I interpret this to mean that because it is expected I will exceed expectations, I will only be "meeting" that expectation. To me this pretty much makes objectives meaningless, and so I am struggling to come up with my objectives for next year. I don’t want to create objectives that are impossible to exceed. Any ideas how I should approach this?"

LK, that’s a great question, and I’ll take a shot here and ask the other members of the FOT team and the readers to pitch in as well.  Anytime you’re doing a review with a 3-point scale (Does Not Meet, Meets and Exceeds), the rubber ALWAYS meets the road when it comes to defining Meets vs. Exceeds.

That being said, the burden should be on the manager to define what Exceeds performance looks like in your role.  If you’re not already doing that, a way that you can help your manager get his head around that is to ask for what Meets/Exceeds performance looks like on an objective-by-objective basis.  For example, let’s say you are a HR Manager.  You could easily break up your role into 7-8 primary objectives, such as Employee Relations, Recruiting, Training, etc.

Once you’ve done that, I would ask your manager to define what "meets" performance looks like in each one of those areas, and also what "exceeds" performance looks like.  That’s the best way to get your manager focused on the details of your role, and not generalize that "at your level, I expect exceeds".  It’s still his job to tell you what truly exceeding his expectations looks like.   

Final note – if he can’t come up with anything for the exceeds column, you should always save "innovation" for the exceeds column.  Try to get him to agree that making your department run smoothly and meet goals in each objective is "meets" performance, but truly innovating and thinking about better ways to do things and implementing those ideas is exceeds.  If you have trouble getting that agreement, ask him who else is doing similar innovation. 

Hint – there’s usually not many who go out of their way.  If that doesn’t work, sic a HR pro like Jessica Lee on them…

FOT Background Check

Kris Dunn
 Kris Dunn is Chief Human Resources Officer at Kinetix and a blogger at The HR Capitalist and the Founder and Executive Editor of Fistful of Talent. That makes him a career VP of HR, a blogger, a dad and a hoops junkie, the order of which changes based on his mood. Tweet him @kris_dunn. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard the good word, he's also jumped into the RPO game as part owner of a rising shop out of ATL, Kinetix. Not your mama's recruiting process outsourcing, that's for sure... check 'em out.


  1. I think this issue really strikes at the core of why a three-point rating system, in a word, sucks. A five or six point system would function much more effectively at capturing the nuances of performance where someone is performing at a very high level (as expected) but doing that little something extra.

  2. Tim Ruef says:

    Jessica: Your response is right on track in helping the person being rated learn how to take charge of his/her career and”manage up.” The key is for the rater to clearly articulate what “exceeds expectations” looks like, and how it differs from “meets expectations.” And furthermore it is critical that the ratee understands what the rater is communicating. What we say as raters is not always what the ratee hears. For example, the manager above seems to use “outstanding” (what his/her manager said) and “exceptional” (what he/she heard) interchangably. Having done this for 30 years, the other point for consideration is that some measures of performance don’t alway fit neatly into a category. How do you tell a hardworking, outstanding, dependable “doer” that they are not “perceived” by senior management to be strategic enough; or that someone in senior managment just doesn’t feel they will ever make it as a senior company leader. These are the hard conversations that no evaluation system can address.

  3. Pankow says:

    I think the key to a successful review is the successful setting of expectations at the beginning of the year. If your review is based on goals, did you meet or exceed those goals? If one sets clear, reasonable (and reachable) goals for themselves, meets vs exceed should become much clearer. You said you would do X. Did you do it? Did you blow it out of the water?
    If you set goals that you or your manager expect you to exceed…you’re setting the bar too low. Realistic goals need to be set based on your skill and pay scale. If your manager says, “I expect you to exceed these goals,” he/she isn’t being a fair manager. They should have you adjust them before settling on them.
    I am not a fan of the 5 point scale. I think it’s much harder to determine who’s a 3 as opposed to 4 than to determine who did their job adequately and who did their job exceptionally. I also believe too many managers are like the college professor who never gave A’s.
    Reviews are much better in black and white. Set expectations for what achieves and what exceeds and you will know what to expect come review time.

  4. Jessica Lee says:

    tim , i can take no credit for the post. it’s all kris dunn.
    i think all the advice given here by KD and the commentators is cool and spot on… but if i were sic’d on the situation, i’d change it from a 3 point rating scale to 4 points.
    we went through a similar change at my firm about a year ago. the norm and standard and expectation is that everyone goes above and beyond… so rating scale was changed to: needs improvement, contributing member, reaches our high standards, and outstanding…
    makes much more sense now to everyone that if you’re going above and beyond and “exceeding” what is expected… that’s par for the course. we’re world class and expect everyone to be a rockstar. but to be say… oh, a justin timberlake… it takes just a bit more something special which of course, we’ll define.

  5. KD says:

    Hi Gang –
    Good feedback on this. JLee, I like the 4 point scale, and what I’ve learned with the three is that you have to do what you can to create a culture where feedback exists….and inflation doesn’t. It’s hard with any scale….

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