As we move into the new year and everyone seems to be focusing on setting goals and laying out plans for 2019, it seems a good time to step back and think about setting expectations. It’s important to set expectations for yourself, of course, but it is far trickier to clearly communicate expectations to people around you. If you are a manager, you probably engage in some kind of goal or priority setting process with your direct reports already.
Now having said that… have you ever had someone who works for you not meet your expectations? Or confuse what you were expecting? Or do something they thought was what you expected, but really missed the mark? I’m guessing the answer is yes.
After speaking to thousands of managers about goal setting through my training work, I’ve realized that setting expectations is just as important as setting goals but it’s rarely talked about.
Here are three principles to guide how you think about setting expectations:
Much like goals, they are constantly changing. Circumstances change and your expectations need to as well. When circumstances change, whether for you or the other person, don’t assume that they will adapt exactly as you will. If your mental picture evolves, check in with them to make sure theirs is evolving as well.
Think Beyond Deadlines
Most managers are pretty good about setting deadline expectations. What is often overlooked, however, are other parts of the process. For example, how do you expect someone to collaborate or rely on the people around them? A lot, a little, or none? Do you communicate that clearly? This includes things like the processes the follow, the amount of support, whether they are documenting their work, and how relationships are affected in the course of getting work done.
Say it Out Loud
We all hold expectations in our heads. They are so clear to us, that it’s easy to assume it will be equally clear to someone else. But ask yourself—have I actually said this out loud? Have I asked the other person what they are expecting and compared that to what’s in my head? Things like communication norms, how often and how you want them to check in—are subjective, and people won’t know what you want unless you tell them.
For example, I’ve worked with managers who wanted weekly reports in a specific format, but gave iterative feedback every week (with mounting frustration) rather than spell out what they wanted and why. I’ve worked for people who wanted an acknowledgement when they sent over an email request. Others found those “acknowledged” or “got it” emails to be an annoying waste of inbox space. The point being, we all have a pretty specific set of rules and preferences in our heads, and we would make our lives, and the lives of those who work for us, a lot easier if we wrote them down and publicized them.
I’ve heard plenty of people say they wish they had been clearer or more explicit. I’ve never heard someone say they were too explicit about what they wanted. Bottom line—err on the side of overstating and over explaining what you expect, and you won’t be disappointed.