Providing clear expectations for your team is an essential part of leading well, yet so often managers beat-around-the-bush for fear of being seen as bossy or demanding.
Instead of making a clear request with “Can you please…”, managers often lead with “I’d love it if you could…” Instead of saying “I expect you to…”, they use phrases like “It would be good if you could try…”
One version lets your team know exactly what’s expected; it makes the standards clear; and team members have no doubt where the boundaries lie. The other version sends a message that the request or expectation is up for negotiation, and that it’s a preference rather than an expectation.
That’s fine if that’s what it is—a preference, where it’s no big deal if it happens or if it doesn’t. In those situations, “It would be good if you could try…” is entirely appropriate.
However, if you have some non-negotiables, it’s only fair that your team know what they are. How can you expect them to measure up, if they don’t know what they’re measuring up against?
What are the non-negotiables?
Understanding the non-negotiables for your business or organisation starts with you. If you’re not clear on what they are, it’s unreasonable to expect your team to be clear either.
Non-negotiables are always tied to the values of the organisation, so talking about your values-in-action will help your team understand what is a preference, and what is an expectation.
For example, if one of your values is Authenticity, it is reasonable to expect that your team engage in real-talk and are prepared to have vital conversations face-to-face. That’s not a nice-to-have, that’s something that is expected as ‘the way we do things around here’.
If one of your values is being Excellence-Driven, it is reasonable to expect that important deadlines are met—particularly ones that are regular and repeated. That’s not a nice-to-have, that’s something that is expected as ‘the way we do things around here’.
Why do we resist giving clear expectations?
Over the years our understanding of what makes great leadership has changed and we have slowly moved from an authoritarian approach, to one that is more collaborative and flexible. While this shift has been important and has ultimately led to more cohesive and engaged teams, it has also left some managers feeling uncomfortable about setting expectations at all.
Being seen as bossy or unreasonable is one of the most common fears for new or emerging leaders. So, rather than risk being called unfair or demanding, managers couch expectations as preferences and hope for the best.
As a manager, it’s important to recognise that not only is it okay to make your expectations clear, doing so sets your team up for success. They can’t win if they’re not clear what they are aiming for.
How do we find balance?
The first step in finding balance is recognising that every request you have of your team will be different. Some requests will be important and non-negotiable. These requests require you to provide clear communication about what is expected, and most importantly, why you expect what you do.
Explaining why something is important helps your team understand your request and provides greater context about the importance of them following through. Without the why, it’s easy for your request or expectation to be misunderstood.
Other requests may simply be a suggestion or a preference. In these situations you can be more collaborative and flexible, but it’s still important that you check with your team about how they perceive the task or request, and what their plan-of-action might be. This helps highlight any assumptions and can often bring attention to hidden expectations from both parties.
What happens if an expectation isn’t met?
Recently someone shared that the word ‘expectation’ made her feel uncomfortable, and that she preferred her boss to phrase expectations in softer language. When we unpacked why she disliked the term ‘expectation’ so much, she explained that she was anxious about not measuring up and was concerned about what would happen if she couldn’t deliver.
From her perspective, not meeting expectations was a pass or fail situation, whereas if she was asked to give something a try, it left more room for mistakes and growth.
As a manager, it is important to recognise that expectations are only taken seriously if there is accountability at the other end. However, what that accountability or consequence looks like, needs to be proportionate to the expectation in question. It’s also important that you provide every necessary support to ensure it’s possible for your expectations to be met. Unreasonable expectations are just that—unreasonable, and therefore unfair.
When setting clear expectations with your team, a useful phrase is, “I can offer *insert what kind of support you can give here* and I expect *insert what you expect from your team member here*.” Making sure you are offering good support is an essential part of the process.
TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
Setting clear expectations is a critical part of good leadership. In order to set clear expectations for your team, keep in mind the following things:
- The way in which you word requests tells people whether it is an expectation or a preference. “Can you please…” or “I need you to…” sends a different message to “I’d love it if you could try…”
- A great leader recognises that we have moved on from the authoritarian practices of old and knows that not every request needs to be non-negotiable. However, great leaders also recognise that it is okay to have clear expectations that are not up for dispute. Non-negotiables are always tied to your organisation’s values and look different for every business.
- Explaining the reason for your expectation helps your team understand the context and importance of them following through. When your team understands the why, they are more likely to deliver or behave as you expect.
- Expectations are only taken seriously if there is accountability at the other end. However, any accountability needs to be proportionate to the expectation in question.
- When setting expectations, it is important that those expectations are reasonable. That includes providing any support your team needs to deliver on expectations.
If you’re not used to setting clear boundaries and expectations, it can take time to get comfortable with this part of your role. Rest assured, setting clear, reasonable expectations does not make you bossy or unreasonable. It’s simply a part of your role and helps set your team up for success.