The Simplest Way to Set Clear Expectations

Great leaders have great expectations. They expect excellence and hold people accountable. Great expectations are vital, but slippery. Unarticulated expectations frustrate… you…your boss, your team, your children, your lover. “But I assumed you would.” “Why should I have to spell that out?” Unarticulated expectations are a sign of ineffective leadership.

My MBA students make it perfectly clear. They want a “rubric” on how they’ll be graded. It’s an intensive practice to clearly define my expectations up front, and check for understanding. Sure the real world is “messier,” but there’s something to be said for clearly defined expectations on both sides of the relationship equation.

Clear understanding improves performance.

The Simplest Way to Set Clear Expectations

1. Get Clear on Your Own Expectations

If you’re not clear on what you want, I guarantee you won’t be able to communicate it.  I had one VP who could never articulate just what he wanted in the presentations we were creating. He just knew it when he saw “it.” The lack of clear expectations always resulted in rounds and rounds of frustrating iterations wasting everyone’s time and weakening respect along the way.

2. Engage in Conversation

Be clear about what you want, but also listen carefully to concerns. Better to identify expectation disconnects as early in the game as possible.

3. Write them Down

In some circumstances it’s useful to write down agreed-to expectations. This works one-on-one and with teams. The process of writing down expectations often leads to further clarity and serves as an objective reminder as expectation violations arise (P.S. if you want some musical inspiration see, Write It All Down— my cousin’s awesome folk band singing Write It All Down.)

4. Check in 

From time to time it’s useful to check in. You can easily draw a 4-quadrant box to guide the conversation (see graphic above). You can do this as a one-on-one or a team exercise.

Step 1

Each person completes the matrix, jotting down areas where their expectations are being met and where they are not.

Step 2

Discuss areas of agreement and areas of concern

  • What do you expect that you receive, or don’t expect and don’t receive? Start with appreciating that.
  • What do you receive that you don’t expect, or expect that you don’t receive? Recognize the good or the issue here and discuss.

Step 3

Identify specific actions that would enable you to work more effectively together.

You can download a PDF of the worksheet here. EXPECTATIONS EXERCISE