Capabilities, Expectations, and Limits

Ecker (1985) described three attributes of employer-employee relations (Figure 1). The first, employee capabilities, is the “sum total of everything the employee brings to the work setting which can be used to perform his or her assigned task”. The second, expectations, is the “employer’s standard of performance for the task”. The third, limits, is established by the employer, “a domain in which employee capabilities can be expressed and employer expectation can be realized”. In Ecker’s view, only capabilities is an established reality, and both expectations and limits relate to how that reality is dealt with by the employer. (I personally think that capabilities is not something fixed, especially from a skills-perspective, but a good boss and job fit, can greatly expand an employee’s capabilities.)

Ideally, all three attributes should have the same magnitude (Figure 1). Maximum performance and employee satisfaction is attained when the employee’s capabilities meet the employer’s expectations, and the limits set by the employer allow the employee’s capabilities to be fully expressed, and the employer’s expectations to be fully met (p. 104).

In a less ideal situation, the employer uses a management strategy – management by control – that does not allow enough space for the employee’s capability to be realized. This happens when the employer sets expectations that are beyond the employee’s capabilities, resulting in “the employee struggling constantly against unreasonable demands, and the boss perpetually frustrated with unmet expectations”. Then, the employer regulates by “setting limits on the employee’s activities within the job”, further hindering the employee from doing the job well.

In management by control, the three boxes do not coincide and may look like Figure 2. The result is that “not only are the employer’s expectations well beyond the employee’s capabilities, but the boss has imposed such tight limits that the employee is not even permitted to work up to the capabilities he has”.Figures

Even though, the goal of this section in the book was really to help employers, and consequently, employees, face less stress in the workplace, the reason I have extracted it and blogged about it here is that I find this model very beautiful, and helpful for thinking about job hunting or job recruitment. Perhaps, we can look at it this way, we want to find a job where our capabilities match up to the employer’s expectations, and at the same time, find a good match, in terms of someone who sets limits that are just right for us, and do not hinder the employee from bringing the best he or she has to the task. For the employer who usually only focuses on the potential employee’s capabilities, a good question to also ask is whether his or her personality, and/or the working environment, poses any constraints that limits the employee from shining and excelling. It is not always the employee’s fault when something goes wrong. A good employer will also examine his or her management strategy.


Ecker, R. (1985) The stress myth: why the pressures of Life don’t have to get you down. Herts: Lion Publishing plc, pp. 103-107