Setting Employee Expectations

Suffering from low employee engagement? Take a look at how well your managers are setting staff expectations and whether those expectations are moving targets.

For example, if you tell new employees that they will receive a performance review after 90 days on the job and then you don’t deliver? You’ve just dashed an expectation.

Or let’s say you tell your team that a project is due January 31. Then, in a customer meeting, you agree to complete the work sooner, say by January 24.

If you spring this date change on your team, instead of involving them in a conversation to determine whether January 24 is realistic, do you expect a happy reception?

Setting Expectations

A good manager sets expectations in the following six areas and then follows through:

  1. Performance review expectations.
  2. Timing of pay reviews and how pay raises work.
  3. Promotion possibilities and time tables for review.
  4. Characteristics of the company (what to expect).
  5. Vacations and time-off.
  6. Assignment or project expectations.

When setting expectations for a specific assignment or project, an effective manager covers the following eight topics:

  1. What I expect you to do now.
  2. When I expect you to get back to me with questions, thoughts of how to proceed, advice needed, etc.
  3. What will happen with the results of this project or assignment (how it fits in with the big picture).
  4. What communications I expect, to me and to others.
  5. Interim milestones where we need to check progress.
  6. What other people need to be involved and how to involve them.
  7. What form the final report or presentation should take.
  8. The timeline or deadline.

In exit interviews, it is very common to hear remarks about lack of expectations, unclear expectations, and shifting expectations. Line managers can’t control customer requests, c-suite decisions, or competitor news, but they can manage a team’s expectations.

In the January 31 to January 24 example above, the manager may be inclined to say:

“There was nothing I could do. We just have to bite the bullet and make it happen.”

This approach can kill engagement. It’s not effective people management. Instead, a good manager will say to the customer:

“Before I can promise January 24, I need to check with my team to understand the ramifications of moving the date.”

Then, the manager goes back to the team and says:

“We have received a customer request for a date change. Since this affects your work, I told them I needed to talk with you first. It would be nice to be able to accommodate them, but not if it means 16-hour workdays. What response can we offer that demonstrates we highly value the customer but also is doable without heroics?”

When the team creates the game plan, the team buys into the new expectations much more easily. This approach fosters engagement.

There will be times when expectations need to shift. The key to maintaining high employee engagement is communication. Don’t stay silent on an expectation change, hoping no one will notice.

Talk with employees as soon as you know you won’t be able to meet an expectation. Explain the circumstances and have a dialogue.