April 1

4 Ways to Set Clear Expectations

If nothing else, be clear. - David Arrington

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The mysterious case of "clear expectations"

Several weeks ago I was conducting an all-day leadership course for an organization. As we were working through an exercise designed to help participants set and communicate clear expectations, one member the group shared that his team contained two highly capable individuals who couldn't work together.

Unheard of, I know right?

With his permission, I led the group as we helped him first clarify his expectations for his non-cooperative team members. His first draft highlighted the bigger problem, his expectation was that  "they worked together because they are adults." He followed that up with a request for them to work out their differences "ASAP."

Clear? Nope. Actionable? LOL. Measurable? Not really. What becomes readily evident is that we often confuse brevity with clarity. For starters: when is "ASAP" and how does one even begin to unpack "because they are adults"?

This was a masterclass in what not to do when setting clear expectations for employees. And my guess he's not the first or last leader to make this mistake. 

His lack of clarity was unintentionally perpetuating a difficult team environment. This type of confusion leads to missed deadlines, frustration, and leaders scrambling at the last minute to do the work they didn't make the time to explain clearly enough.

This is one of many leadership mistakes we make frequently. Check out my other post on 5 Leadership mistakes you should avoid.

Influential leaders work hard to ensure that they are setting clear expectations for their employees and their teams. For more on becoming an influential leader check out 7 Leadership Skills you need to have.

When it comes to setting expectations we often undermine our best intentions by falling prey to three common communication assumptions.

First, we assume we are making ourselves clear, second we assume that we were understood, finally we assume it's the other person's job to understand and interpret what we are saying and what we expect of them.

1. Decide to be clear

You have to decide to be clear to set Clear Expectations

As a leader, it's your job to think through the outcomes and understand what you need your teammates to provide. If you take the extra 15 minutes to consider what you need and how they can best assist in realizing that goal you will save yourself countless hours of frustration.

I've spoken with leaders who would just forward emails along and add "see below." When there are 10 emails in a chain, what does that even mean? What exactly do you want them to see and what specifically do you want them to deliver?

This is where a decision to be more clear is critical. That small decision will help you to move from "see below" to see the section below I highlighted in yellow and let me know if you can provide that by next Tuesday. Which we can all agree is more helpful than "see below".

Don't expect your people to interpret your shorthand emails, cryptic conversations, and cubicle flybys effectively. The onus is on you to be as clear as possible when you communicate.

2. Understand what you want

Understand what you want so you can set clear expectations for your employees

You cannot set clear expectations if the outcome is still unclear to you. Half-baked ideas lead to poor communication, unclear expectations, and your eventual misplaced frustration. Misplaced because you will most likely be frustrated with the person who gave you what you didn't ask for when you should be frustrated with your lack of clarity at the outset. 

When you take time to clarify the outcomes, time frame, expectations, and available resources you give the other person a greater chance of giving you what you need. 

3. Ask them what they heard

Asking what your employee heard is a great way to set clear expectations

It's easy to think that because you said something that the other person knows what you meant. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. 

One of the simplest ways to know what someone heard is to ask them. Just ask open-ended wrap-up questions that help them restate what their action items are following the meeting. This is your opportunity to clarify deadlines, details, and ensure you are on the same page. 

For bonus points you could have your employee send you a short follow up email documenting the agreed upon expectations. This way the expectations are written down, agreed on, and no longer open to interpretation or misunderstanding. This also gives you one more opportunity to correct any lingering misunderstandings. Like I said, bonus points.

4. Make time to communicate

Make time to communicate to set clear expectations

Asking people to do things for you as you pass in the hallway or through cryptic short e-mails is a recipe for frustration. If you think remote work and working from home removed the need to make time to communicate, you would be mistaken.

If anything working remotely has exacerbated the communication problem, but it also provided an easily solution.

Now more than ever, with workloads increasing, the lines between work and life blurring, and life just being so different for so many people, you need to make time to communicate expectations. You can use the same scheduling and video conferencing technology to schedule a one-off expectations meeting.

If it's important enough to require their time then it should be important enough to schedule a 15-minute meeting to make sure you're on the same page.

Think of it this way. You could schedule a 15-minute meeting to clarify expectations or you could spend 15 frustrating hours correcting and redirecting your team member. The choice is yours. 

If you liked this article, you will probably enjoy 8 Critical Factors for Leading High Performing Teams as well.

You can find more ideas on setting clear employee expectations in this SHRM article.

How important do you think setting clear expectations is and do you have any tricks I missed? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below. 

About the author 

Dr. David Arrington

David a husband, father and the principal of Arrington Coaching. He and his team work with leaders, teams, organizations, and entrepreneurs. He regularly speaks and writes on leadership development, team alignment, and peak performance.

  • I like to follow up a conversation or meeting with a written recap of important goals and dates so that any confusion or miscommunication is resolved. I often find that the recap brings forth questions that didn’t come up in the conversation and sometimes allows a deeper understanding of expectations. Meeting first and then recapping second is vital to communication, as receiving an email without direction sometimes confuses people and also is less important to them because they get hundreds of emails.

    • Donje,

      Thanks for commenting. Great idea. Often the writing process makes us more deliberate in choosing our words and clarifying our thoughts. Writing a recap is a great way to ensure everyone is on the same page.

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