Make Your One-way Expectations a Two-way Street

By Tom Davidson

When it comes to maximizing performance in others, the single most important factor (and common shortfall) for new and experienced managers alike is conveying clear and complete expectations. The second most common oversight is making them one-directional.

Make them Clear and Complete
When a leader who is having trouble with someone’s performance contacts me, my first few questions are to find out what has been done to clarify expectations. More often than not, here are the shortfalls in their answers:

  • They’ve been working here long enough; they should know what’s expected of them! (Too much assuming)
  • I’m very clear about the goals; they’re posted on the white board in my office and review them every week! (Too much emphasis on the “what” not the “how”)
  • I’ve told over and over again that they need to improve; if they can’t figure out how, then I might not need them! (Expectations are too vague)

Unless, the client has done the following to make them clear and complete, I send them back to clarify expectations and call me in six months if there’s still a problem:

  1. Write down not only what is expected (i.e., goals, results, objectives and timelines) but also how they should be accomplished (i.e., teamwork, communication frequency, leadership behaviors).
  2. Meet with the individual to convey your expectations (both what and how) verbally and ask them to take notes to be sure you’re on the same page. Don’t just hand them the list, because you can’t be sure they understand them unless they actively listen and take notes.
  3. Have the individual go back to their office and write up what they thought they heard you say, and then ask them to send them back to you.

When you review their version and meet with them again, you’ll be surprised how far off they were and glad you went through this exercise.

At this point, answer their questions and clarify your expectations once again, going through the same process of note taking and returning their understanding in writing. When they finally come back with the same expectations you intended in their own words, you’ve got it, and – more importantly – they’ve got it!

Make Them Two-Way
You may be the boss, but if you want to be a leader that people want to follow, take this one step farther by making the expectations two-way. Here’s how:

  • Ask your subordinate or team to come up with a list of what they expect of you. Make sure they know that you can’t guarantee that you’ll agree to all of them, but you’ll do your best and explain why if you can’t.
  • Meet with them in person to receive their list and ask only clarifying questions.
  • State your agreement to everything you can, explain why you can’t meet some (e.g., that you will tell them everything you know as soon as you know it), and find ways to reach a compromise on the most difficult ones.

Once you have their expectations of you, get them to rate you on how you’re doing against them. This will be your baseline scorecard with them. Then get their feedback regularly and be sure to show progress! You’ll be a better boss and leader, and they’ll work even harder to meet the expectations you have of them.

What’s your favorite tip regarding employee expectations?

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