The importance of setting expectations as a leader

Paul Slezak
Leading People

I was running a workshop recently for a group of business owners, founders and leaders and one of the sessions was a deep dive into setting and managing expectations. 

The framework for one of the day’s breakout activities was to compare the expectations that the leaders have (or have had) of certain team members versus their actual performance or output and how this could result in one of three potential outcomes – either ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘mere satisfaction’, or ‘delight’ in terms of what the team member achieved or delivered. 

Before we launched into the activity, one of the participants raised his Zoom hand and asked if he could quote Charles Dickens! 

Somewhat intrigued, of course I said, “yes”. 

“Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies”, he said cheekily. 

He was quoting from Dickens’ Great Expectations

Certainly an interesting segue into the activity given that although somewhat sarcastic, he was in fact hinting that if you don’t set expectations carefully, you have no right to be disappointed with the (potential lack of) results. 

Another active participant quickly pointed out that it’s just as important not to be unrealistic or to set your expectations too high, since this might also be setting you up for disappointment. 

We then discussed some of the more common gaps that could appear when it comes to setting and managing expectations – primarily: 

  • knowledge gap – where your team member might not have adequate knowledge or have had sufficient training to perform at the level you’re expecting them to.  
  • standards gap – where there is a misalignment between what your team member thinks you expect, and what you actually expect; or 
  • satisfaction gap – where there is a significant difference between what you expected and what your team member delivers. 

When we all came back together to de-brief the discussions that had taken place in each of the breakout groups, we then looked more closely at some of the various strategies they used as leaders to set realistic expectations with their employees. 

By the end of the session there was (thankfully!) consensus around how important setting expectations is for both individuals as well as teams. After all, without clearly defined expectations, your team members may flounder if they are unsure of where the bar has even been set and exactly where their contribution lies in the scheme of things. 

They want clarity. They don’t want any confusion. They want to feel empowered. Above all, they want you to set clear (and ideally realistic) expectations and objectives as part of their path to success. The result will be higher employee performance, an improvement in work standards, and an increase in the level of employee confidence. 

Expectations can’t just be ‘cut and paste’ 

The expectations or objectives you set for the broader team will have been designed for everyone in the group to digest as a unit. However, the expectations you set for each individual team member will be different according to each person’s skillset, capability, and level in the business. You might raise the bar with a certain team member, set more realistically achievable expectations for another, and perhaps even revise expectations during a project if it becomes apparent that you potentially gave them too much rope. 

Set expectations early and make them crystal clear 

There’s no point setting expectations after a project has started. Or, if you are monitoring a team member’s progress throughout (eg) a quarter, then you can’t set the expectations one month in. Strong leaders make their expectations very clear from the outset. They have them clearly defined (and documented!) so there’s no room for uncertainty. It’s important to put the expectations in writing and always ask your team member to repeat the expectations back to you in their own words to ensure that you are both on the same page. You certainly don’t want anything lost in translation. 

Articulate the Why 

Teams and individual team members need (and want) context. Exactly why are you setting the prescribed expectations? How does what you’re expecting of them fit into the bigger picture? It’s important to remember here that there is a difference between the actual task(s) you are setting and what your expectations are in terms of delivery, outcomes, or achievement. You want the members of your team to know that what they are doing is important regardless of where they sit in the organisational structure. 

What does satisfaction look like? 

Going back to the introduction to this post, it’s critical for a leader to paint a clear picture of exactly what satisfaction (in terms of the deliverable or the outcome) means. You could even take it a step further and give a specific example of what ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘mere satisfaction’, or ‘delight’ would look like for a particular project. Then any future conversations can be shaped around how the result(s) can be best achieved, which can also empower the individual team member to feel more of a sense of accountability. 

Ensure all your expectations are measurable 

Sometimes vague expectations are worse than no expectations at all. Vague expectations create more uncertainty, more of a grey area, and the accountability mentioned above cannot be brought into question. When you set your expectations for your teams and individual employees, you need to be clear about exactly how you will measure their success – ideally using the SMART framework to help create clarity while also establishing a feedback mechanism between you and your team members. How are you planning to measure outcomes, and more importantly exactly when and over what specific time frame are you planning to determine and assess a team member’s personal performance or achievement? 

Once you have set clear expectations, it then becomes a lot easier to manage the expectations and ideally avoid any scenarios that might fall into the knowledge, standards or satisfaction gap buckets outlined above. 

However, in the same way that setting tasks is completely different from setting expectations, so too is managing expectations different from accountability. But we’ve decided to leave that as a theme for a follow-up post.