setting expectations

Getting Clear on Setting Expectations

Sarah Katherine Tucker
Sarah Katherine Tucker

Speaker and Coach Alan Willett says it best: “Exceptional leaders are fearless in setting expectations in clear language.” But let’s be honest – as leaders, this is easier said than done despite the enormous benefits. The ultimate goal of a well-honed practice (and yes, it takes practice) of setting expectations, is for leaders to build genuine trust with their teams and the broader organization. At a micro-level, clear goals and expectations are key to employee engagement. 

2018 Gallup poll revealed that 34% of U.S. employees are engaged at work, with only 15% of employees engaged globally. Imagine – 66-85% of employees in the workforce are either neutral or, worse, disengaged. We could unpack the multitude of factors that contribute to employee engagement, and we strongly encourage people leaders to do so, but let’s focus on these two follow-on metrics:  

  • 50% of employees strongly agree they know what’s expected of them at work 
  • 12% of employees strongly agree their manager helps them set work priorities 

The former statistic is a little easier to absorb, but both clearly reflect a disconnect in managerial effectiveness and this directly impacts employee engagement. Articulating the goals of the organization, team, and each individual helps your people define what success looks like in their role. This understanding of relevance and purpose as part of a larger picture is key to driving engagement and retention long-term. Fortunately, we can point to four C’s that guide leaders in setting clear expectations.  

Setting Expectations—Clarity 

Clarity around expectations begins with you as the leader. It is essential that you are clear on the overarching goals of the organization as well as what your manager expects of you so you can provide direction to your team. Team members need to know the work they are doing is valuable and context can often be helpful. Be sure you can answer the following questions and articulate clearly to the team: 

  • What is the goal/objective/expected outcome? 
  • Why is this goal/objective/outcome important? 
  • Who is responsible/accountable for the goal/objective/outcome? 
  • When does the goal/objective/outcome need to be achieved? 

Setting Expectations—Communication 

Once you are clear on goals, objectives, and outcomes, your focus should turn to communicating these to your team in a clear and succinct manner and on a consistent cadence. HOW you communicate is just as important as WHAT and WHEN you communicate. As a leader, being an effective communicator is essential to motivating your team and ensuring they remain engaged in the company’s mission and goals. This is accomplished by honing both your verbal and nonverbal communication skills when interacting with individuals internally and externally to your organization. Tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions all play an important part in communication. Understanding your communication style and the communication styles of your team is a great exercise in awareness. 

WHEN you communicate is key to continued engagement from your team and knowing where your team may be stuck. A great communication cadence includes consistent and asynchronous 1:1s as well as larger team opportunities to check-in. Consider taking this approach as part of your regular team check-in cadence: 

  • Early Slice – One or two weeks into a project this check-in can be valuable to ensure there hasn’t been a miscommunication about expectations. Checking in after the first chunk of work is complete can save a lot of time in the long run. 
  • Midstream – A midstream check-in is a great opportunity for more positive and constructive feedback. This is also an opportunity for your team/team members to ask questions as they get further into the work and uncover things on which they may need some additional guidance. 
  • Completion and Debrief – Taking time to discuss the final product, debrief the process, and give feedback is valuable as you learn and adapt your approach as a manager and delegator. This is also hugely valuable for the team/team member as an opportunity to learn, grow, and receive coaching from you. 

Setting Expectations—Consistency 

Your ability to manage expectations both up and down within the organization hinges on being an effective change facilitator. Consistency in expectations is important so you’re not sending your team off in different directions and/or pivoting unnecessarily. While it may seem repetitive to you, Aristotle provided a still-relevant approach to communication: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. This applies to unchanged expectations as well as goals or objectives that may have been adjusted.  

Keeping your team on the same page and driving towards the same goal has never been more critical. Consistency can be stifled in an ever-changing environment in which goals can seem like a moving target. Consider the pandemic and the shift to remote work – never before was there so much uncertainty and change for businesses and this certainly impacted the employee experience and productivity. Regardless of the internal or external circumstances, normalizing this flux and reducing the noise for your team is your job as a leader so they can remain focused.  

Setting Expectations—Commitment 

Call it buy-in, call it a thumbs up, whatever the indicator may be, gaining commitment from your team when it comes to your expectations is absolutely essential. Commitment is the product of successful (and consistent) articulation of your expectations, including context around the what, why, who, and when. A lack of commitment results from ambiguity and a lack of commitment ultimately leads to a decline in performance on your team. 

Building trust with your team and playing the role of coach and mentor throughout your time as a leader is a place you must settle into comfortably. Communicating the value each of your team members is contributing to the goal or objective is a great place to start. This increases engagement and begins to build commitment. To continuously build commitment, give praise and constructive feedback in equal measure and encourage creativity and ideation. Putting forth the effort to build commitment in your team is worth the investment of time. 

Setting clear expectations helps ensure you and your team are operating from the same page. For you as a leader, managing becomes a habit when you consistently leverage the four C’s. For your team members, clear expectations drives shared ownership of goals and objectives. More importantly, clear expectations increases employee engagement and retention long-term, and those are both core business imperatives this year and beyond. 

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