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Are Your “Clear Expectations” Really Just Code for “My Way or the Highway?”

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

It seems easy enough:  to get the performance you need from people, you need to set clear expectations.  In reality, I find this is one of the hardest things for corporate executives to do well.  They think they’re doing it well, but they’re usually making three fundamental mistakes. If you can avoid these three mistakes, your expectations will serve as a solid foundation for helping your people perform at their best.

First, don’t mistake actions for outcomes.

When you give someone your expectations, do you tell them what you expect them to do, or do you tell them where you expect them to end up?  Typically, managers know what needs to be done, or they know what they would do if it were their job, so they express their expectations in those terms, e.g., “here’s what I need you to do.”  The better approach is to paint as clear a picture as possible about the end result, or outcome you expect.  Define the end point, not the path to get there.  Don’t mistake directions for expectations.

Second, be as specific as you need to be about the end result.

You must get as explicit as possible about the requirements of the result, and leave out what is not actually required.  Requirements include the obvious things, like tangible deliverables, specific and meaningful due dates, and even templates.  For example, if the company requires a specific budget template, then part of your expectation is that the proper template be used.

Requirements get a little trickier when you get into standards.  It’s absolutely fair to have expectations of the highest standards, but here, you need to remember mistake number one above.  We often express our “standards” by telling someone what to do and how to do it, but a real standard must be expressed as an outcome that can be measured. If you can’t do that, then you haven’t really defined a standard yet.

In addition, you have to be careful not to include “requirements” that are not really requirements.  This is where it gets really tempting to tell someone all the things they need to do, because it’s how you would do it, and you believe it must be done that way.  But this assumes your way is the only way to do it.  If it’s even remotely possible that they could accomplish the specific outcome, to the specific standard, and get there in a different way than you would have, then “your way” is not a requirement.  Just because you believe it should be done a certain way does not make it a requirement.

Finally, the biggest mistake in setting expectations is not being clear with yourself first.

Setting clear expectations is harder than it looks.  You have all kinds of needs, wants, fears, and desires, and they will disguise themselves as “clear expectations.”  You want people to do things your way because that feels the safest.  It’s easy to believe you have to protect your people, so they don’t fail.  Or maybe your ego can’t imagine that there might conceivably be a better way than your way.  We all have unconscious motivations lurking under the surface, driving us to get others to do what we want, how we want it. The better you understand yourself, the better you are able to set clear performance expectations for people (and not let it become all about you).

The biggest mistake in setting clear expectations is falling into the trap of “my way or the highway.”

Here’s the summary:

  1. Focus on defining outcomes and end results.
  2. Be explicit about real requirements, and leave out the rest.
  3. And most importantly, manage yourself and trust your people.

If you can do that, then you put yourself in the perfect position to help people by coaching them. Coaching is the art of helping others improve performance, without simply telling them what to do.  And that’s a topic for another post.

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