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.

Expect – Engager Dynamic #1

“Expectation is the root of all heartache,” someone has said. I would agree with one clarification. It is unmet expectation that causes all heartache. It’s true in marriage, family, work, community, politics, etc. To go a step further, one of the most toxic killers in any relationship is unspoken expectations. Not meeting an expectation is one thing. Not knowing what the expectation is and then learning you didn’t meet it can be devastating.

Word Nerd Alert

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary an Expectation is

    “A feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will (should) be.”

 An Exercise in Unmet Expectations

I’ve taught this material in a classroom setting, I like to ask the group to take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I then ask them to put their name at the top of the paper and explain that I want to go through an important exercise with them. Then I tell them that the exercise is foundational to understanding the Engager Dynamics and have them number down the left side of the paper from 1 – 10. I explain that they have three minutes to complete the exercise. Then I tell them to begin.

What’s wrong with this exercise? There are no instructions, no expectations have been set. People don’t have any idea what I want them to do. They believe it’s important. They figure that I want 10 of something and they know the timeline. But, what in the world do I expect them to write? They haven’t a clue! You should see the reactions I get to this stress, and it’s artificially induced. Imagine the stress of a similar situation in real life . . . or maybe you don’t have to imagine.

A Real Life Example

I recently stopped at the drive-through of a well-known fast food restaurant for a cup of coffee. I waited for several minutes and the line didn’t move. Still wanting that cup of coffee, I decided to go inside. The scene inside was tense. Many people were waiting for food or to place their order. People in the back were working but things weren’t flowing and there was frustration in the air. A young woman whom I assume was the shift manager turned from the drive through window and said to the crew in the back, “C’mon you guys!” That was it, “C’mon you guys!” Nothing changed. I did eventually get my cup of coffee but it took way too long.

When the shift manager issued her exasperated rebuke, the looks on her colleague’s faces said, “What do you expect us to do?” There it is. What was the expectation? That was a real-life example of my staged exercise where unclear or missing expectations create stress.

What Do You Do?

The job of the Leader is to set clear expectations and make sure all employees know what the expectations are. Some examples include:

  • What Skills do you expect employees to have or gain?
  • What Duties do you expect the employees to perform?
  • What are the quality and timeline expectations?
  • What attitudes do you expect the employees to have toward each other, toward customers, the company, the boss?
  • What else do you expect? (e.g. do all your employees give you a “high five” when they see you? If so, will you expect that of new employees? If s/he doesn’t give you a “high five” will you be offended and think poorly of the new hires? It may sound silly, but that’s a real life example and these are the kinds of subtle things that can fall into the category of unspoken expectations. Be sure you’re self-aware)
How do you communicate your expectations?

  • Job descriptions
  • Duty Lists
  • During Training
  • Employee handbooks
  • Policies and Procedures manuals
  • Posters
  • Verbally
It is not enough to simply tell an employee about an expectation once and leave it at that. People need to hear a thing 3 – 7 times, preferably through different media, before it will really sink in. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. It is also very important to be consistent in your communication. Send the same message to each employee.

Setting clear Expectations that are communicated effectively and consistently will pay dividends on employee engagement not only for its own sake but also when it comes to Performance Evaluations and Trust. Both of these are critical Engager Dynamics we will discuss later. Expectations impact them both.

A Word About Barriers

Expectations can remain unmet for several reasons. For example, someone attempting to meet an expectation could be blocked by a co-worker, by broken or missing equipment or even by a policy that conflicts with the expected outcome. The result of blocked attempts to meet an expectation is frustration. Or, as in the examples above, expectations could be unclear causing anxiety among the workers. Failure to meet expectations causes discouragement which lowers morale. On the other hand, when expectations are clearly understood and met or exceeded, engagement occurs and morale improves.

Flip the Coin

 
Most conversations about expectations at work revolve around making sure employees know and meet (or exceed) the expectations of the company and their boss. Remember, employees have expectations, too. They have expectations about their co-workers, their relationship with the boss, the value of their work, etc. One of the best ways to engage employees around expectations is to exceed their’s.