Skip to content
paper fortune teller with question mark on it

What Do You Want From Me? Getting Clear on Expectations at Work

By Carole Wehn

Think of a time in your career when you worked hard to prepare a presentation for your boss. You proudly delivered the result, only to be told it was in the wrong format and the wording wasn’t what the boss had in mind. Remember how disheartened you felt when you had to redo the whole thing?

You may have once struggled to gather information for a customer. You were pleased to present a comprehensive response to the customer the next morning. But the customer was disappointed because they needed the answer for an important meeting the prior afternoon.

In both situations, you presented quality work, but it was unsatisfactory. It didn't meet the recipient's expectations. You probably didn't ask when the customer needed the information or the specifics of what your boss desired in the presentation. The misunderstandings could have been avoided by discussing expectations upfront.

Now that you’re in a leadership position, you should prioritize getting clear on others' expectations and setting clear expectations for your employees. In doing so, you’ll reap three significant benefits:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Efficient business operations
  • Employee engagement

The 3 Cs of Setting Expectations

Expectations trigger outcomes. As CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman observed in his first book, Fundamentally Different:

”We judge situations not by what happens, but by how they compare to what we expected to happen.”

It's easy to assume that your employees know what you want, are on the same wavelength about deadlines, and understand the objectives. But chances are what’s in your mind is not in theirs. And you may think you comprehend a long-standing customer's expectations. Yet you can’t know for certain that you’ll meet their needs unless you confirm them.

To avoid misunderstandings, follow the “3 Cs” rule when setting expectations for your team:

  • Clarify in your mind what you need before you ask for anything.
  • Communicate the request and expectations clearly.
  • Check for understanding by confirming the other party’s agreement.

I’ll Know When I See It

Did you ever feel you wanted something but couldn’t describe it? Perhaps you thought, “I’ll know it when I see it.” While that may have worked for the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity, it doesn’t help your employees meet your objectives.

Before you assign work, be sure you are clear on what you want. Failure to get the request straight in your mind will lead to re-work and frustration for you and the employee.

You may have a vision but are uncertain how to get there. Brainstorm with your employees. You can describe your goal and let your team members help craft the desired deliverable. This exercise can have the additional benefit of securing the team’s buy-in to the project and helping them feel invested in the outcome. But ensure you are clear on what you expect of them before they start the work.

What Do You Want From Me?

Gallup noted that US employee engagement dropped in 2021 for the first time in a decade. It fell further in 2022, with only 32 percent of employees saying they are engaged at work. In addition, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees has plummeted since the pandemic. In 2019, the measure was a record high of 2.7 to 1; in 2022, the ratio was 1.8 to 1.

Much of the decline from 2019 to 2022 was attributable to the clarity of expectations. Gallup’s measure of employee engagement includes surveying employees’ agreement with the statement, “I know what my company expects from me.” Gallup researcher Jim Harter commented,

“This element is the most foundational of all engagement elements. A lack of role clarity makes all other engagement elements less impactful – employees cannot perform at a high level when they are confused as to what they are supposed to do.”

Gallup researchers surmise that surveyed employees’ confusion about expectations reflects the following:

  • Managers' failure to communicate the organization’s strategy in the post-pandemic environment
  • Young workers’ disconnection while working in remote or hybrid settings
  • Managers' lack of acknowledgment of heightened work-life stressors post-pandemic

The work environment has changed radically over the last five years. It hasn’t been easy for leaders to adapt to economic and pandemic-driven changes. But it is incumbent upon them to clearly convey the organization’s goals and objectives, basic job accountabilities, and behaviors expected of employees.

Providing Clarity

Effectively communicating requests involves the who, what, when, where, how, and especially the “why.” For example, you are being direct if you say you want the month-end financials by Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. But does the employee understand the required format? Do you want just the numbers, or do you also want an analysis of variances from the budget? In addition, the employee will likely have more buy-in if you explain why the data is needed Wednesday afternoon.

Some requests, like financial statements, may not allow for creativity and flexibility in performing the work. But where possible, allow employees to choose the path to producing the deliverable. Express your goals and explain how they align with company objectives. Indicate what’s non-negotiable. Permit time for questions and discussions about various approaches and potential roadblocks. Then allow the employee to feel empowered to deliver the result.

Indicate your role in the process. What can the team member expect of you? Did you provide the necessary resources? Will you be available for questions along the way? Schedule periodic check-ins if appropriate.

Communicating expectations applies not only to simple requests and assignments but also to employee performance. Letting employees know what’s required of them begins with the onboarding experience. Does the employee have a job description that conveys the position’s deliverables? Does it describe a typical day? Did you explain your workplace culture and desired behaviors?

Gallup's Marco Nink noted,

"The best managers clarify expectations and support employees by helping them structure their work and prioritize their tasks. They help employees measure the difference they make and hold them accountable for their results. Additionally, they are available to answer employees' questions and provide ongoing support, feedback, and communication so that employees always know whether they're meeting expectations."

Define Success

Performance expectations should be in writing and agreed upon by the manager and employee. Measure employee performance against the deliverables and behaviors previously conveyed. Create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals with your employees so that it’s evident whether they’ve been met.

Avoid the "I know it when I see it" when assessing execution against expectations. In a Fast Company article, Jessica Federer of Boston Millenia Partners advised,

"Agree on what success looks like, then go one step further and align on what qualifies as 'outstanding.' This enables team members to know where they stand, and it helps reduce any surprises when it comes time for performance reviews and bonuses."

Watch Your Language

Conveying expectations is important in all our communications. Telling your spouse that you’ll be home from work “soon” will most likely result in frustration for both of you. Your idea of “soon” may be radically different from theirs.

The same goes for expressions such as “I’ll get it to you ASAP” or “it won’t be much longer now.” Those platitudes aren’t what you want to hear when waiting to get your car back from the mechanic! You want to know precisely when it will be ready. So, the same applies when we use those phrases with others. Our performance will be judged by the recipient’s perception of what “ASAP,” “soon,” or “much longer” means, which may be quite different from ours.

Setting expectations involves ensuring our language is clear about what will be delivered and when. It allows the other party to ask questions and negotiate the deliverables as necessary.

It’s also essential to ask for expectations when providing the deliverable. Ensure that you will be able to meet the other party's requirements. When dealing with customers, ask what they need specifically and when.

Next Steps After a Meeting 

You may have found that post-pandemic, time spent in meetings has been increasing to improve communication among employees working from various locations. End all meetings with clarity about action items, responsibilities, and due dates. Ensure that accountable parties understand what they need to accomplish and when.

This practice not only makes the next get-together more efficient, but it also demonstrates to workers that the time spent in the meeting is important. It may be helpful to appoint a scribe for the meeting who will document these next steps so that all participants are on the same page.

Confirming Your Expectations

It’s been said that “when you want to influence action, what counts is what’s heard, not what you said.” You may think you've been clear. But unless you check with the other person to find out what they heard or their understanding, you may still have a disconnect about the expectations.

Whether you have set expectations for your team or have discussed deliverables with a customer, ensure mutual understanding and agreement. Document them in writing where possible. Don't assume the other party knows what you're expecting because it's a recurring order or task. Avoid potential misunderstandings by agreeing on what will be provided and when.

If we’re unclear on the expectations, we often respond to situations as if they’re urgent when they may not be. Clear expectations enable appropriately prioritized work and less stress.  

It may feel like it slows things down to be crystal clear about expectations and confirm that others are on the same page. But it ultimately speeds things up by avoiding the wasted time, energy, and frustration that usually accompany these misunderstandings.

Build It into Your Culture

Think about how much more efficient your organization can be if everyone is attuned to getting clear on expectations. Company cultures are built on behaviors, so make aligning expectations a component of yours.

Explore the CultureWise website, where you’ll find many free resources about company culture and employee behaviors, including access to webinars, podcasts, and tip sheets. To learn more about strengthening your company’s culture will improve communication and build customer satisfaction, schedule a call with one of our specialists.