Why setting clear expectations is important and how to do it

The vital role of setting clear expectations, at work, at home, forever

So when we talk about setting expectations, the first thing I need to do is to define ‘expectation’.  What I mean is an ‘outcome or goal that you are seeking to achieve’…the process of figuring out and communicating what is expected.

Sadly, for most of us, whether we’re in a project team, or we’re a line manager or whether we’re parenting or even in a relationship, we don’t define our expectations. Instead, we tend to talk more vaguely, perhaps because we expect the other person to ‘get where we’re coming from’ or ‘what we’re getting at’, hence phrases like ‘does that make sense?’, ‘y’know’ and ‘do you know what I mean?’ are so prolific in the English language.

Because deep down, we know that what we’re saying, that the expectation we’re setting, isn’t actually very clear at all. Possibly because it isn’t clear to us, and definitely because we haven’t explained ourselves clearly to the other person.

So this blog is all about the art of setting clear expectations and how to do it.

Be clear in what you expect the end goal to look like and how to measure it, and do it early

First of all, let me give you a somewhat shocking report finding that lays out the territory for you and shows you why setting clear expectations is important. A recent Towers Watson survey reported that half of managers don’t set effective employee expectations or goals.

And if, therefore, 50% of employees haven’t received a clear message on what is expected of them, they will figure out their own expectations, they won’t know how close or far away they are to what their manager had in mind and no one will know when or if the expectation has been achieved.

This needs to stop, right? That’s a lot of wasted human resource. And a lot of emotional energy too as people go through the anxiety and stress of uncertainty. People want clarity. They need a direction to follow and need something to work towards. This is the basis of how humans are motivated.  So let’s change things and start getting clear on expectations.

First things first: be clear on what you have in mind. Know what the end goal looks like. For most of us, this will take a bit of thinking power but without it, you’re in grey, vague territory. So if you want someone to ‘spend some time researching how to get a particular company accreditation’ and that’s what you ask them for, then depending on who you ask, their work preferences and their workload, you’re going to get wildly different responses.

Some people will spend most of the week on it, others an hour or two. Someone might give you a 20 page printed report with multiple appendices and someone else might send you back a single paragraph email. And no one will know why you asked for it!  That’s what not to do. And it’s how work is often (under)specified and (poorly) delegated.

So be clear on the what. And be clear on the why, too. How about, instead: ‘We want to enhance our brand with our corporate clients and so we’re considering getting an industry recognised accreditation. We believe it will drive up sales, so it’s an important piece of work. I’d like you to spend a maximum of half a day researching the steps we would need to take to gain the accreditation, the cost, the time involved, any barriers you can see, and your recommendation on how we take it forward. I’d like a max 2 page summary report by Friday please, in a format that I can take to the Management Team for a decision.’ 

Big difference right? More thinking time required on your side, but rather than a ‘hit and miss’ approach which could give you all sorts of different responses, now you’ve been really clear on your vision and you’ve communicated your expectations by explaining the why. You’ve also been clear on what success looks like and how you’ll measure success. They need to deliver a report, as specified by you, by Friday COB in a format that can be tabled with the management team. Bingo!

Being clear on the end goal is the essential first step and ideally, you need to do this before any work has started. As they say, a stitch in time saves nine. Or moving past sewing analogies, set clear expectations at the start and you’ll save a tonne of confusion and rework.

Be clear on who is responsible and who is accountable

The second step in how to set clear expectations with employees is to specify who is responsible and who is accountable. At Strengthscope, we use the project management approach, RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) when setting up a project team. This makes it clear who is responsible and who is accountable.

Someone who is ‘responsible’ is the one doing the actual work and there can be more than one person.  The ‘accountable’ person (there should only ever be one accountable person) is answerable for the delivery of the task. Someone whose opinions are requested, typically someone who is an expert in the area would be ‘consulted’ and finally, there may be people who are ‘informed’ (that is, normally they’d get updates on the progress in a one-way kind of way).

So for our example of the report on company certification, the responsible person is the person receiving the brief who is going to do the research and create the report. The accountable person is the one who gave the instruction – their manager. We don’t know, but the company may have a subject matter expert who would be consulted, otherwise there’d be no one in this category. And you could argue that the management team would be informed, but actually that’ll happen when the manager delivers their report. So in this case, to keep it simple, you’re really only using the R and the A of RACI. Super useful though as a good discipline for project work and for setting clear expectations. Aaaaand this approach avoids having 10 million people on email copy too!

Utilise the power of strengths in delivering the objectives

A great add when setting expectations with employees, or when you receive a request to deliver something, is to consider which of your strength or strengths you can draw on to get the job done and to stay energised and motivated during the process.

With our example project, you might approach the task differently if you have Collaboration or Relationship building strengths, because you might get others involved somehow. If you have a Critical thinking strength, you’ll probably find it easy to break down the task, and your report, into manageable chunks. If you have a Courage strength, you’ll probably delight in the section you’ve been asked to write on recommendations, particularly if you have a strong opinion on what the management team should do. So use your strengths, and the strengths of everyone else involved, to get the job done.

Let people know where they’re at at each stage

Feedback feedback feedback. Humans need feedback. So when you’ve delegated a chunky project, even if you’ve specified really well your ‘why’, your vision of the outcome and how you’re going to measure success, my advice is to check in early to avoid people unwittingly going off at a tangent.  The best-intentioned employee may just not have fully listened to, or understood, your brief, so check in at the appropriate time depending on the scope of the task. But whatever you do, do it earlier rather than later, or there might be a load of unexpected rework, just because you assumed that all would be well. Optimism is not welcome here. Check in instead.

Lessons learned and showing your gratitude

If you’ve followed all the steps for setting clear expectations, then you should be on course for a positive outcome. So when you get your final report, or when the project is delivered, don’t just move on to the next task. Instead, take the time to communicate that you appreciate everyone’s efforts, that you’re grateful for the effort that they put in and communicate the result that you got.

And as appropriate, run a ‘lessons learned’ debrief so that you can continuously improve your processes. That’s not just a post mortem of stuff that’s gone wrong. It’s equally important to talk through what’s gone right, so that you can learn for next time…what to do more of, what not to do, how to do things more efficiently next time, and so on. It’s a great way of closing off a project before you move on to the next task. And it doesn’t have to take long.

In closing – setting clear expectations is worth the effort

So those are the steps. To be clear on setting expectations, you need to be clear on your picture of success, how that will be measured, and why the work is needed. Be clear on who is responsible, who is accountable and who is bringing which strengths to the party. Give feedback early to avoid derailment or stuckness or confusion and be sure to take a breath at the end of a project to thank those involved and extract any lessons learned for next time. Speaking of next time, until next time, stay strong.