How to set expectations at work (and everywhere)

When expectations are not made clear for employees – in their individual roles, in terms of team working and across an organisation as regards expectations of behaviour – morale can drop because people feel unclear of what’s expected of them (both the ‘what’ that’s expected and the ‘how’ it should be delivered), so employee engagement and ultimately performance can fall. And according to a recent study by Gallup, around 50% of US employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work.

When the mismatch between what’s expected and what actually happens gets too great, real bad stuff can also happen like grievances or unfair dismissal claims, because people understandably can’t meet expectations that were never made clear in the first place. Also, teams can get dysfunctional when expectations for behaviour are not clear.


My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, and I bring you strengths-focused podcasts each week to get your week started right, get you motivated and get you thinking. Today’s podcast has a clear work focus and is how to set expectations. Well I say it’s a clear work focus…actually, who’s to say that following some of these approaches wouldn’t be helpful outside of work too. But mainly I’m going to be talking about work as the focus.

At work then, expectations fall into two main areas:

  • Expectations for performance: what some people call the ‘what’ – objectives, results, outcomes…tangible stuff that needs to be achieved.
  • And expectations for behaviour: what some people call the ‘how’ – the values, behaviour and attitudes that are expected from people.

So how can you set expectations at work well? Here are a Top 5 tips, in time order…

1. Know what your expectations actually are and WHY

So whether the context is working with a colleague on a project, or being a team leader, or objective-setting for a direct report for the next month, or 6 months, or thinking about the values of your whole organisation as a behavioural charter for everyone to follow…so basically whatever it is that you’re trying to get across, to whoever and whenever, make sure you’re clear in your head on your expectations, both WHAT they are and HOW they should be done. Even if you think ‘it’s obvious, isn’t it’, it probably isn’t to others, and may well not be to you either, until you write them down and get clear exactly what you’re looking for.

Take an example that often happens for me with coaching clients…leaders who expect people in their team to behave in a certain way but haven’t told them what that looks like! Because to them, it’s obvious isn’t it? But often, their expectations for HOW they expect people to behave (we’re talking about ‘how’ expectations here) relate to their own values and what is important to them but those aren’t things they would necessarily talk about every day, let alone explain to their team or department.

So writing down that set of expectations from a clear behavioural point of view is absolutely necessary to make it even possible to describe and explain them. Another element needed here is the WHY – why are these your expectations, what purpose do they serve…for you, for the team or organisation. This is important because people seek meaning and sense in whatever they hear, so understanding the why will help people to feel more on board and more committed.

So whatever the context, be clear on what your expectations are first, before anything else, as well as the reason, the why, for those expectations.

2. Share your expectations and ask for feedback

Once you’ve got clear, and written down, your expectations, speak to the person or people who the expectations relate to, explain your thinking and ask them for their honest feedback – is what you’re saying fair and realistic or does it need tweaking, or do you need to start all over again? This approach will help the people on the other end of the expectation have a say, feel they’ve been heard, which means you’re more likely to get buy-in.

3. Set expectations in a way that plays to strengths

So if strengths are those things that every human being, individually, is energised by, does naturally, and is great at, or has the potential to become great at (that’s how I would define strengths by the way…other strengths definitions are available), then there is a way for anyone you are setting expectations with to deliver by focusing on their strengths. Let me give you an example – say I have been asked to deliver £50,000 of sales over the next 3 months to 5 key accounts.

If I have Persuasiveness, Strategic mindedness and Creativity as three strengths, I may well approach the task differently from someone with Efficiency, Results focus and Detail orientation. But that’s fine – the point here is to tap into the natural energies of the human for whom or with whom you are setting expectations in order to help them get the best from themselves in meeting that objective.

So help the person to work out how they are going to achieve the objective or outcome using whatever they have at their disposal. And part of that may well be providing your support, or suggesting the support of others, which brings us onto…

4. Understand what more they need and what you can do

Expectation-setting should be a mutual process in an ideal world (although in reality, it is more typically in one direction than the other). We’ve established that you’re going to be making clear your expectations in whatever the context you’re in. But what about their expectations of you – will they need support (from you or from others?), what about check-ins to ensure they’re on track and so you can give each other feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. What do they expect from you? And if the answer is ‘nothing, I’m all good’, then keep going a bit until you actually have a conversation about expectations from both sides. With that, will more likely come commitment to the goal.

5. No room for complacency – keep coming back to your expectations

It’s too often thought that voicing an expectation once is enough for it to happen. But that’s about as far from the truth as a long way. If you’re talking behavioural expectations (the ‘how’), then make sure the values, or the behavioural charter you’ve communicated is visible all the time and is reinforced by you, and others, so that you are noticing and making an example of what you want to see, as well as calling out what you don’t want to see.

If you’re talking more what objectives or expectations, then check in on them at weekly or monthly one-to-ones and day to day in conversation or informal coaching sessions. The more you mention it, the more likely it’s going to stick and to gain long term commitment from others.

My Top 5 tips then for setting expectations at work, to recap, are:

1. Know what your expectations are and why they are,

2. Share your expectations and get feedback,

3. Use people’s strengths to get things done,

4. Understand your part in all of this and

5. Keep communicating your expectations.

If you follow those tips, in that order, you’re going to be setting expectations effectively in no time at all.

That’s it for this week. If you liked this podcast, there’s so many more – please subscribe to the channel (on Soundcloud or button above for your favourite platform), whichever podcast platform you’re on and access the back catalogue, which is growing every week. I know you’ll find something in there which grabs you. Till next week.

This podcast, series 5, episode 9: How to set expectations at work (and everywhere) originally broadcast on October 21, 2019