Mike asks me to stop by his office before I leave for the day. As we sit down to talk, he looks quite discouraged because one of his newer supervisors is falling short of expectations. As always, my first question to Mike is, “How have you explained your expectations to the supervisor?”

Mike confidently tells me that he had reviewed the job description with him on his first day which should have made it quite clear.

My next question is, “How do you know the supervisor understood what you expected?”

Mike first looks at me quite puzzled and then quickly realizes he has been assuming the person understood his expectations and was able to translate the job description into what he should actually do.

How can you tell when expectations are the problem?

Expectations are the problem when there’s a performance gap and you cannot confirm that sufficient details related to the expectations have been communicated so that the individual can do his work correctly.

More than half of the time that I’ve asked a manager whether expectations have been made clear, our conversation usually reveals that the requirements of the role have not been adequately communicated.

As you’d expect, the topic usually shows up when we are discussing situations where managers are seriously dissatisfied with someone’s performance. What’s most surprising is that setting expectations is not where a manager typically starts diagnosing the reason for a shortfall.

Ways to unpack expectations

1. When performance is what you require, always start by ensuring expectations have been thoroughly communicated. The first step in working with people is to set them up for success. Unless and until clear expectations have been provided and understood, success may be impossible. This step is the foundation for good performance and it’s often missed because of assumptions about what’s understood.

2. The most effective way to confirm expectations is to ask questions and have the per-son confirm in detail what they have understood them to be (versus a yes or no answer). Most managers I work with are surprised to realize how wrong they are about what people understand about expectations. Often, a manager might ask “Do you understand the expectations?” and when the employee says yes, they walk away assuming it’s been covered. This step is too important to leave to assumptions.

3. Expectations need to be broken into specific behaviors to ensure clear understanding. For example, an expectation of doing something timely is not nearly as effective as stating that something must be done every week by Friday at 5 pm. Oftentimes managers describe expectations in terms that could be easily misunderstood.

Expectations that are worded like “thorough,” “helpful,” “teamwork,” “flexible,” etc. are easily misunderstood. When managers are not getting the specific behaviors they’re looking for, they need to communicate those specific behaviors in detail to their teams.

Click here to discover the other 4 key ways to unpack expectations that will help you create the behavioral changes you need.

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