“What do you expect?”
People say that all the time in an earnest or quizzical way, or sometimes with outright exasperation. However, more often than not, people simply think it without ever taking the extra step to clarify what is expected of them.
That leads to mistakes, conflict, shoddy work and productivity losses, because your employees and coworkers ask or think of asking that question when:
- They really have no clue what is expected of them.
- The task is new, and they don’t see the context of the request in the big picture of their work.
- What they were told didn’t make sense or was shared in a one-way medium like an email or text message.
- They were seemingly given autonomy to complete the task, but in the past they’ve been burned because they didn’t deliver what you wanted.
- You don’t really know what your expectations are and you are taking an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach.
As you can see from that list, the question indicates that there is a serious gap in communication and understanding. You want people to say it out loud to you, rather than simply thinking it. The problem is a good bit of your employees aren’t asking you that question. Perhaps they worry about looking foolish. Or maybe you responded negatively to their inquiries in the past, and they want to avoid dealing with your anger.
If you want to improve both productivity and the quality of people’s work, you need to encourage people to ask the question. More important, however, is that you want to do everything you can to establish crystal clear expectations so that employees don’t have to ask the question. Here’s how you can do that.
- Make it part of every conversation. To avoid even small gaps in expectations, make a conscious effort to talk about expectations regularly.
- Be clear yourself. You can’t provide clear expectations if they aren’t clear to you. Understand exactly what you want the outcome to be for each request or assignment before you speak to employees.
- Talk about the big picture. Put your request or task into context. Tell employees why each assignment or request matters and how it contributes to team and organizational goals. Once people see what the overall goal is, your request will be much clearer.
- Share boundaries. Perhaps you have some parts of the task that you want done in a specific way, so provide specific instructions. However, if you care more about the result, and not how employees get there, let them know the budget, time parameters or whatever else matters in the situation, and explain where they have latitude and flexibility.
- Confirm understanding. Always take the time to confirm with employees that they fully understand what you expect, the next steps to take, and what success will look like. Ask them to paraphrase back to you to confirm their understanding.
- Provide the needed skills. Sometimes people aren’t able to meet expectations because they don’t have the necessary skills. When this is the case, provide them with the advice and skills needed so they can meet your expectations.
Finally, while this isn’t required, I highly recommend that you don’t be too rigid. You don’t want to tell people exactly what you want in such detail that they have no room for creativity, self expression, personal commitment or an opportunity to create something even better. Giving people some room to work within your expectations will garner you greater commitment and better results. Be willing to let employees go about a task in the best way they see fit, if their way works.