From Confusion to Clarity: Master The Skill of Managing Expectations at Work
Have you ever been halfway through a work conversation and thought, "Whoa, we are not on the same page at all"?
Deadlines missed. Teams in turmoil. Projects pivoting endlessly. At the core of this chaos? Expectations — mismanaged and misunderstood.
Welcome to the high-stakes world of managing expectations at work.
Getting this wrong over time causes anxiety, miscommunication, and poor performance. It can lead to complaints, frustration, and arguments in both professional and personal life settings. In a business, that means frustrated employees, decreased performance, and increased turnover.
So, you'll want to set clear expectations for everyone to build healthy relationships at work, increase team cohesion, and help team members hit their professional goals.
Unveil the secrets to turning managing expectations into your superpower with our 11 steps for alignment and performance.
📊 What does managing expectations mean?
Managing expectations refers to the process of setting, communicating, and maintaining realistic beliefs about what can be achieved in a specific timeframe within certain conditions or constraints.
Managing expectations at work is an essential part of creating a healthy work environment. Essentially, it means establishing clear, realistic goals and boundaries so everyone stays on the same page.
If you don't manage expectations at work, people get anxious, wires get crossed, and teams aren't sure of their responsibilities. Things can get chaotic quickly.
The phrase is sometimes used as a euphemism for calming someone's enthusiasm. If your leaders expect incredible results from a project you think won't make much impact, you might want to eliminate unrealistic expectations by cooling down their lofty hopes into something more achievable.
More commonly, though, it's used to discuss agreements – who has agreed to do what and how.
To clarify, we can talk about expectations set in the short term or the long term.
Short-term expectation management
In the short term, workplace expectations will focus on immediate roles, responsibilities, and deliverables. This is where onboarding plays a significant role. New hires need to understand what is expected of them in their current position, what their daily tasks will entail, and how their performance will be measured.
Short-term expectation management often includes:
- Role clarity: Clearly defining the job description, tasks, and immediate goals for the employee.
- Performance metrics: Establishing KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and other metrics that will be used to evaluate the employee's performance.
- Feedback loops: Setting up regular performance check-ins or one-on-one meetings to provide constructive feedback.
- Skill and competency development: Identifying any immediate training needs and addressing them promptly.
- Team dynamics: Ensuring new hires understand the team structure, who they report to, and how they fit into the larger organization.
Long-term expectation management
Longer-term expectation management covers a broader time horizon. In a work context, long-term expectation management can be where career pathing is most relevant. It's about aligning an employee's career aspirations with the organization's future needs and opportunities.
- Career mapping: Discussing potential career trajectories within the firm and the steps needed to get there.
- Skill and competency development: Identifying long-term skills and competencies the employee will need to develop for career progression.
- Promotion criteria: Clearly defining what is required for the employee to move up the career ladder.
- Future roles: Providing insights into potential future roles and the experience and skills required for those roles.
- Continuous learning: Encouraging a culture of continuous learning and improvement to help the employee stay relevant in their field.
🪜 Managing expectations at work: 11 Steps for alignment and performance
People's imaginations can run wild without the right guardrails in place. Without knowing the proper protocols, agreements, and context for doing things in the workplace, they can only follow the fuzzy instructions of their own psyche.
People only know what they know. So here are the best ways to get everyone on the same page.
1) Avoid the curse of knowledge
This first step is about adopting the right mindset, which will inform how you handle each of the following steps. The 'curse of knowledge' is a cognitive bias that negatively impacts your ability to communicate with others. It's when you assume other people have the same knowledge as you.
Steven Pinker, a psychologist and language specialist, writes about this in 'The Sense of Style,' a guide to writing so people understand you well:
"When we know something well, we don't realize how abstractly we think about it. And we forget that other people, who have lived their own lives, have not gone through our own idiosyncratic histories."
In short, remind yourself that not everyone has your brain. Explain things clearly to them.
2) Promote curiosity
As well as explaining things clearly, asking the right clarifying questions will bring you closer to understanding another's perspective.
Amy Woodall, a trainer at Sandler business training, suggests that individuals should adopt an attitude of curiosity. Instead of assuming that others have the same knowledge and perspective, be curious about their outlook, and you'll find common ground:
"We often falsely assume that everyone else sees the world exactly the way that we do, which I think… is not the case."
Woodall explains that having the commitment to ask tough questions and dig deep into work and personal relationships will bring full clarity:
"Just genuine curiosity and the attitude of, 'Hey, look. They might look at the world differently than I do.'"
3) Clarify roles and responsibilities
Now, for a more practical step: clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each team member. Not just what they do but what they don't do.
With these, the employee will know what is expected of them at each level and how these expectations will develop over time. Use detailed job descriptions to ensure all employees understand their specific tasks and goals.
4) Perform regular job analyses
Job roles don't stay the same over time, especially in fast-moving organizations.
So, regular job analyses allow you to assess the specific skills and abilities required for each position and act accordingly. This helps you evaluate performance metrics and ensure employees have the resources and support to meet expectations.
5) Set clear and realistic expectations from the very start
Starting early sets the tone for how things will follow. And if you don't, it can be confusing and stressful to change plans further down the line. So begin by clarifying role expectations during the recruitment process (even in your job descriptions) and throughout onboarding.
You'll also want to follow up with regular updates, clearly communicating your hopes for projects, deadlines, and quality of work.
✍️ Want to know how to do this in more detail? Check out our guide to setting expectations for employees.
6) Showcase how expectations reflect your company culture
Your company's values and culture will play a significant role in shaping employee expectations. So, when you're explaining how someone should do something, it helps to back that up with sound reasoning.
"We've always done it this way" is along the right lines, but it's not really enough. A document, policy, or case study is an improvement. Or even better, an explanation of why doing things a particular way matters in this organization.
Aligning expectations with your company culture helps employees to better understand your organization's values and the importance of their work. This adds an extra layer of meaning to the requirements, making them more impactful and easier to embrace.
7) Define goals in line with your own expectations
The problem with expectations is that they can be subtle, subjective, and vague at times. While goals are quantifiable, expectations can be more general, and it can be hard to say whether or not they've been met.
So, you'll want to ensure that the goals you set for your employees are realistic and attainable, considering their skills and resources. Use the SMART criteria (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) to create well-defined objectives.
👀 Still unsure of the difference? Check out our guide to goals vs expectations.
8) Use a range of feedback mechanisms
Employees need to know how they're doing and understand how their efforts stack up against what you want from them.
While you can use feedback mechanisms like the classic one-to-one meeting, why not vary it up a little? Constructive feedback, regular check-ins, and feedforward allow open communication. They help employees understand what their leaders and teams expect of them.
If you offer timely guidance and support, you can promote continuous improvement and align expectations across multiple teams within the organization.
💬 Check out our 15+ one-on-one meeting templates to help you structure your meetings.
9) Be transparent with changes in expectations
Things change along the way – it's inevitable.
When shifts in priorities occur, you've got to maintain transparency and communicate them to everyone involved. If you don't, how are they supposed to know to do things differently?
Keeping employees informed helps to reduce stress and confusion and makes for smoother, seamless transitions. How you do it is up to you, but regular performance reviews are one opportunity you might find appropriate.
10) Proactively address employee challenges and offer support
If someone's struggling to adjust to new team expectations, you should really reach out rather than watch them suffer.
Understanding and addressing the challenges that they face will help you to better manage everyone's workload and sanity. Sometimes, it's not always obvious what the issue is, or it could take some time to work out. In this case, an employee performance coaching session could be an excellent opportunity to dive into the issues, ask the right career questions, and find solutions.
If you're proactive in offering support, resources, and encouragement when needed, your team will know that you value their well-being and overall success.
11) Recognize achievements
As any good manager-as-coach will know, recognizing the achievements of team members is vital for maintaining motivation.
Make an effort to celebrate successes and acknowledge the hard work and dedication of your employees. It'll showcase the positive impact of meeting and exceeding expectations.
🕵️♀️ Why is managing expectations important? 7 Key reasons
Setting specific and relevant expectations, you'll be able to prevent misunderstandings, disappointments, and frustrations among your colleagues and supervisors. Managing expectations is a critical aspect of effective leadership, team dynamics, and improving employee performance.
It serves as the backbone for a multitude of benefits, including:
- Enhancing team collaboration and efficiency: Clear expectations provide a roadmap for team members, enabling them to work together more cohesively.
- Reducing misunderstandings and conflicts: When expectations are well-managed, there's less room for ambiguity. This clarity minimizes misunderstandings and potential conflicts among team members.
- Boosting overall job satisfaction and employee morale: Knowing what's expected and how it aligns with individual and team goals can significantly improve job satisfaction and boost morale. It just makes for a nicer, smoother day-to-day work experience.
- Improving performance: Clearly defined expectations provide a framework for employees to excel, meaning they're well-equipped to do their best work.
- Consolidating the relationship between leaders and their reports: Transparent communication of expectations fosters trust and mutual respect between leaders and their team members. They might not be best friends, but they can at least reach a better understanding.
- Creating accountability: When expectations are clear and communicated, it's easier to hold people accountable for their performance. That means calling out problems as well as rewarding excellent work.
- Setting the context for goal-setting and alignment: Managing expectations sets the stage for more effective goal-setting, helping to align individual objectives with organizational targets.
As you can see, it's definitely something worth getting right. When your teams know what they're doing, things just seem to work as they should.
➡️ Manage expectations, motivate, and grow with Zavvy
As we've explored, managing expectations is a vital part of effective people management. And keeping track of responsibilities in a fast-moving organization isn't always easy. So, at Zavvy, we're proud to offer a suite of tools to make this more streamlined and enjoyable.
🧭 Zavvy's career pathing software allows you to create clear and customizable career paths for your employees. This helps you set realistic expectations about their career progression, roles, and responsibilities.
Zavvy also enables you to identify skills gaps and training needs, aligning employee goals with your organization's objectives.
Do you want to give feedback on how everyone stacks up against expectations?
📊 Our platform's performance evaluation features streamline the review process, making it transparent and fair. It offers 360° feedback, calibration to eliminate bias, and customizable review templates.
With these, performance expectations are clearly communicated and assessed.
💬 If you need to have productive conversations about expectations, Zavvy's one-on-one meeting software provides a structured platform for individual meetings between managers and their reports.
It offers features like pulse questions, collaborative agendas, and action items, which help set the agenda and expectations for the meeting. This makes for much better communication and accountability between leaders and their reports.
📅 Curious about how it works? Book a demo to find out more.
❓ Frequently asked questions
How can leaders effectively communicate expectations?
To effectively communicate expectations, leaders should be clear, concise, and consistent in their messaging. Providing regular feedback on employee performance, progress toward goals, and areas that need improvement is essential. Encouraging your team to ask questions and seek clarification is also vital in fostering open communication. One helpful practice for leaders could be to engage employees in development conversations and involve them in setting expectations.
What is an example of expectation management?
An example of expectation management is when you, as a leader, notice that an employee has been given a very tight deadline for a project. In this situation, you could proactively address the deadline concern by discussing the employee's workload, identifying potential challenges, and exploring alternative solutions. This proactive approach enables both parties to establish realistic expectations and avoid miscommunication, thus fostering a positive work environment and promoting success.