Six Best Practices for Setting Clear Expectations


Judging the performance of a team member is one of the most common challenges I hear from my clients. They aren’t satisfied with the results and they struggle to assess the performance of the employee. This can lead to the avoidance of an important conversation until things get so bad action has to be taken. By then the chance of recovery is slim.

In most of these cases one simple thing is missing. Alignment with the employee on the expected results they will produce. Sometimes the expectations have been written down but the employee doesn’t fully understand them. More importantly, do they understand how their performance will be assessed?

The impact of unclear employee expectations

Here are some of the problems I observe when employee expectations are not clear and agreed:

  • Uncertainty about what to work on. This can be unsettling or lead to frustration later when the results don’t hit the mark. It feels like the ‘fetch me a rock’ scenario. They work hard but can’t seem to ever please the boss.
  • Inability to judge performance over time. Lack of clear expectations is the source of many unpleasant last minute surprises. As time progresses the person is more reluctant to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid.
  • Diminished ability to coach the other person because they don’t know they aren’t meeting the expectation. Giving guidance early on, builds trust and the leader can assume the role of coach.
  • The leader takes on the work instead because it is easier to do it themselves. This is very common when leaders are dissatisfied with performance. This reduces the leader’s capacity to perform other duties and also disempowers the employee.

Simple practices to clarify employee expectations

The above problems are all very painful and time consuming to resolve. Now the good news, the alternative is simple and doesn’t take much time or effort. Here are six best practices for establishing clear and agreed expectations with your employees:

  • Co-create the goals together. You have some things that must be achieved but allow some flexibility in their definition. Encourage the employee to add their language. Ask them what they would add to generate more value and make it more meaningful.
  • Be clear on what is and is not negotiable. For example the final completion date may be fixed but is there flexibility when the interim deliverables have to be ready?
  • Agree simple indicators that illustrate what success looks like and make sure they are clear to both. Avoid jargon and aim for simple everyday descriptors of what success looks like. If possible set up measures that show progress to the goal so early issues can be spotted and resolved.
  • Explain why the outcome is important to generate commitment. Just because you know why the goal is important, others may not. If the reason is not clear the it risks becoming another item on an already long ‘to do’ list.
  • Listen and respond to the employee’s questions and concerns. They may not be confident and your role is to coach them how to do it. Resist the temptation to step in and take over. As mentioned above that behavior doesn’t serve anyone well.
  • Check in regularly on progress. Set aside dedicated 1:1 time to review the goals and progress made. Mixing these reviews with other items, perhaps more urgent ones, will dilute the focus.

High performing managers set and agree clear expectations, and provide regular performance feedback. If you have not been doing this well, I can’t think of a more important action to start now.

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