Setting Employee Expectations

by  Peter Friedes  |  Workplace Issues
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.

In your opinion, what prevents managers from setting expectations thoroughly? Join the conversation below…
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

About The Author

Articles By pete-friedes
Peter Friedes, retired CEO of Hewitt Associates and co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC , writes about management best practices. Visit http://www.managingpeoplebetter.com/mpb/index.html for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Page Cole  |  03 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Wow, Peter… this article made me wish I was double jointed in the hip, so I could kick my own butt for letting my staff down in several of these areas!

Thanks for not just pointing out the causes of disengagement, but how I can fix it.

I’ll be working next week on that list! Thanks again!

John Smith  |  03 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Peter – great post, which shows you either have done your homework or been burned in the workplace by poor management … maybe both:).

I think several things might stop managers from “doing what’s right”, as you so clearly and comprehensively state above:

1) Lack of Awareness – some folks in leadership positions are just oblivious to the effects of their actions or inactions on those they lead. They may be self-absorbed or just do not understand their role.

2) Lack of Motivation – we often describe the optimal state (as you do above) and assume that everyone wants to achieve that ideal situation, but my experience says “Nay, Nay”.

3) Lack of Support – Sometimes we try to up our game, and we are thwarted by those in authority over us. I know that many will say that you just have to manage up, work past, and overcome a lack of support, but reality tells me that sometimes you just have to move on.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post:)


David Dye  |  03 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Great post Peter. Clear expectations are the foundation upon which all management (and then leadership) is built.

To answer your question – I believe the first thing that prevents the majority of managers from setting expectations as clearly as they need to is…that the expectations are clear – to them. They understand it, they asked if there are questions, everyone sat mutely, so they assume it’s understood. I can almost guarantee that it is not.

What we say is not what is heard. It makes sense in our head, but not to others. Your assumptions are not their assumptions.

Effective managers check for understanding at every step. eg: “So what do you understand the expectations to be?” That way you know that they know…because they said it.

Thanks for a great post!

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