Setting clear expectations: the critical conversation you’ve likely never had

One of the most common issues leaders have in today’s hybrid workplace environment, where employee turnover and constant change have become the norm, is people not delivering on expectations. While it is frustrating when this happens, it is important to note that 75% of employees are unclear on expectations. This is likely because the critical conversations to set expectations are almost never happening. 

Let’s do a quick exercise. Picture a colleague who is not meeting your expectations. It could be a direct report, a peer or a key collaborator. Considering this situation, I have two coaching questions I would like you to answer honestly:

  • What specific expectations are they not delivering upon?
  • Have you ever had a deliberate, comprehensive conversation with this colleague to communicate your expectations? 

Four aspects of clear expectations

In all instances where this has arisen during my coaching work, my clients had not engaged in a specific and comprehensive conversation about their expectations. Part of the challenge is that most leaders do not consider that there are four aspects to setting clear expectations:

  1. Updated job or role description
  2. Current goals and priorities
  3. Organizational values
  4. Core competencies

1. Updated job or role description

A well-defined job description serves as the foundation for a team’s roles and responsibilities. It is very common for job descriptions to be out of date. I have also seen many cases where people are hired based on an inaccurate job description because internal processes were unable to approve a refined job description quickly enough. 

For cross-functional teams, individual team member roles are almost never documented well (based on our experience). A clear job description helps employees understand their duties. This needs to be clear from the outset and updated regularly to reflect changes in the role’s scope and responsibilities.

2. Current goals and priorities

Every role comes with a myriad of tasks, but not all tasks are created equal. It is important to identify the tasks and initiatives that are most critical to achieving departmental and organizational goals. We help teams Set Complete Goals™ where they define the work required to achieve the goals, not just a set of targets. To achieve more goals, it is important to review your goals on a regular basis. While this sounds like common sense, it is not common practice: 70% of teams do not review their goals.

3. Organizational Values

Company values are not just words on a wall. Simply put, culture is your values in action. They are guiding principles that drive the organization’s culture and behavior. We believe it is critical to discuss your most important values with your team, especially since the importance placed on specific values often varies for different teams. It is critical for all team members to live these values, even when things get tough and the team is under pressure. Our research indicates that only 1 in 3 leaders truly lives their values and that truly living your values is directly connected to both high-performance culture and effective leadership. Having a deliberate conversation about values with your direct reports and collaborators is a game changer. 

4. Core competencies

In my coaching I find perceived gaps in core competencies are a common source of frustration, though these are also the most likely expectations to not have been communicated. Beyond technical skills, core competencies define how a leader would like the work to be done, in a way that is not already captured by organizational values. 

In my experience, leaders have commonly not taken the time to fully develop wording that articulates the competency. It’s more of a sense or a feeling. Have you ever found yourself saying, “this person is getting the work done but I want them to be more proactive, more strategic, more supportive or more collaborative”? The list may include skills like communication, teamwork, problem-solving, adaptability, and innovation. It is critical to clearly articulate core competencies and integrate them into your performance expectations. 

Setting expectations drives performance

Once we set clear expectations, it is easier to provide meaningful feedback, offer authentic recognition and fairly assess performance. People are more likely to follow through on commitments, live the values and focus on core competencies in their work. Setting clear expectations (on all four aspects) also provides helpful language to communicate where people could make improvements. In our approach to Talent Management we identify top talent based on whether people live organizational values and demonstrate functionality capability. Setting expectations is a foundational element of a high-performance culture. 

Put this into practice

To help leaders rapidly become more effective, we have created The Playbook, our free guide to the foundations of high-performance leadership. If you would like to pinpoint your personal development priorities, take our free High-Performance Leader Self-Assessment or we can help you get a 360° review. 

We empower leaders to make common sense, common practice. How can we help you?