How to Make a Habit of Setting Expectations

It’s been said, “Two things can destroy any relationship: Unrealistic Expectations and Poor Communication.” That’s especially true if communication is poor about expectations. In my post on expectation setting, I said that one of the most toxic killers of any relationship is unspoken expectations. Why would expectations go unspoken, especially at work? Two possible reasons are

  1.  Assumption – you assume people know the expectations either because “they should be obvious,” or, you believe someone else has already expressed them.
  2. Awareness – you may not be aware that you have a certain expectation.

What Do You Expect?

One of the first steps in making a habit of setting expectations is to identify your expectations. “Expectation” is defined as “A feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will (should) be.” So ask yourself, “What are my beliefs about how . . . should be done?” Here’s how you can identify those expectations you may not know you have. Ask yourself, “What do I find myself being irritated about at work? Let’s say it’s meetings. OK. Make a list of what irritates you about meetings. Maybe your list looks like this:

  1. People arriving late
  2. Side conversations distracting people and causing loss of focus
  3. People interrupting each other to make their point
  4. Disrespectful non-verbal communication
  5. People going on tangents
  6. Meetings take too long

You’re irritated about these things because you have an underlying expectation (feeling or belief) about how they should be. Now, turn each of those irritations into a statement of expectation.

Meeting Expectations

  1. Everyone will arrive to meetings on time
  2. Everyone will remain attentive to the discussion on the table
  3. Everyone will demonstrate courtesy during meetings by allowing a speaker to finish their point before speaking
  4. Everyone will demonstrate a respectful attitude
  5. Everyone will remain on topic. Side topics will go onto the parking lot for later discussion
  6. Everyone will adhere to the agenda so meetings will end on time

You may even want to include some accountability signals. For example, if someone does not meet expectation #1 Arrive on time, they have to sing a solo in front of the rest of the group. I’ve seen this work wonders at getting people to meetings on time! For the rest you may simply establish a further expectation that anyone can respectfully remind attendees of the expectation they are violating at any point during the meeting. If it’s your meeting, you certainly can do that.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

That was pretty easy. Now you have to let people know what the expectations are. You need to communicate. You may want to do the following:

  1. Email team members (or anyone who may attend meetings in your organization) a notice letting them know what the new Meeting Expectations are along with the accountability signals. It would be helpful to include a statement of why you are implementing these expectations. In the interest of respect for people’s time and points of view and for the efficiency of meetings, for example.
  2. Send out agendas for meetings ahead of time. Include the list of Meeting Expectations on every agenda.
  3. Make a poster of the Meeting Expectations and hang one in every meeting room for all to see.

Now you’ve communicated your expectations three different ways. If you model these expectations and consistently use the accountability signals you’ve developed, you will find yourself a lot less irritated at meetings. Even better, you’ll find your teams more engaged and productive when they meet.

Making It a Habit

If your habit has been to be vague and imprecise about expectations, how do you change that habit? First, take a look at my posts on exercising the Do and Don’t muscles and on general Habit Formation. Then, set up your habit change routine. Identify your “whistle” (see Habit Formation). Practice the skill – for example, identify the underlying belief of a frustration and turn it into a statement of expectation. Reward yourself. Repeat on a daily basis.

Not every one of the expectations you discover will be about work and some, you may find, are unrealistic. That’s actually a good thing. Learning to clearly articulate your expectations will help you engage the people who need to know what you expect. It will also help you abandon those expectations that are unrealistic which is definitely good for engagement.

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