Setting Expectations Is a Crucial Leadership Skill: Here's Why

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As a leader or manager, it’s incredibly important to make sure your expectations for your employees and departments are clearly understood. Most individuals truly want to do a good job, and poor performance often isn’t necessarily due to a “bad” employee — usually, it’s due to a miscommunication of the expectations set forward for that position. This is a much easier thing to fix than an employee not suited for their spot. In order to make sure employees understand what good performance means, it’s important to set expectations from the very beginning.

Setting Expectations and Leadership

Setting expectations usually involves two distinct pieces: the whats (tasks employees are expected to complete) and the hows (the skill sets they are expected to show competency in to perform these tasks). Often the whats are easier to set for a department: There may be historical data that can be used to produce an expectation of transactions per month, and projects often have timelines built into their planning that will help produce their completion date.

For new projects or tasks that aren’t repetitive, or for things without a set endpoint, progress benchmarks are usually equally easy to guess at. These whats form the baseline of performance expectations.

Setting Expectations With Employees

The hows, however, can be as important as the whats, and these are often the expectations that employees don’t necessarily understand or that aren’t sufficiently clarified. It’s important to make sure how you want the whats accomplished, or inefficiencies and unrealized goals will result. For example, an employee might be relying too much on senior teammates to make their decisions, when a manager is expecting them to show independence and critical thinking. This takes up the time of managers from managerial tasks as well as stifles the creative horizons of the full team.

Setting Expectations With Your Team

The first step in setting useful and realistic expectations for a team is to make sure that you, as a manager, understand the situation. Your expectations and goals should challenge your team, but also need to be achievable. Evaluate the set of expectations set for the department as a whole, and if they aren’t achievable, be sure to discuss with the department manager to adjust.

Also, evaluate your team’s current positions. Expectations for senior employees should be higher than those for new hires, and it’s fair to set more challenging goals for employees with more experience. A good manager will evaluate their plans for their department and then distribute work accordingly based on skill sets and expertise.

Excellent Communication Is Key

Once your personal expectations have been set, it’s time to communicate these to your employees. If leading a project team, this should involve a project plan, including individualized assignments and responsibility breakdowns so that everyone on the team understands their role. As a manager, you should set performance expectations in a one-on-one meeting with each employee to make sure everything is understood. Again, you’ll want to discuss not just the quantitative expectations but the qualitative skills an employee at their level is expected to display.

A good way to do this is to use examples that make the concept relevant to your department: for example, rather than just saying that you expect collaboration, be more specific and explain that you expect employees to work with specific other departments as needed on certain projects. This helps teammates gain a better understanding of what the hows might mean when directed at their own positions. Be sure to check in occasionally, and provide concrete corrections to ongoing work when needed.