Set Clear and Specific Expectations


Meeting key business expectations is tied directly to employee performance. When employees aren’t performing, it’s up to the leader to diagnose why performance expectations aren’t being met. Oftentimes, the leader immediately evaluates the employee(s) and looks for the lack of capability or skill, issues with time management, and a decrease in engagement or commitment. Sometimes, it is the employee that has a skill deficiency or lacks engagement. And sometimes the lack of employee performance resides with the leader.

As Joanne Trotta shares in her 2018 article 3 Ways Awesome Leaders Set and Manage Expectations, “setting and managing expectations is essential to success.” Among other things, failure to set clear expectations creates disappointment, underperformance, and missed deadlines. When leaders aren’t clear about and fail to manage what’s expected, that’s on the leader.

Take the scenario below, for example:

On a recent coaching call, my client Tom expressed frustration that certain team members weren’t performing their jobs as expected. As we explored each team member and the associated breakdown in meeting performance expectations, it was evident that Tom believed everyone has the necessary skills, intelligence, enthusiasm, and desire to contribute and deliver meaningful results. Tom went on to describe his relationship with his team as particularly good, and he explicitly trusts each person.

As we dove deeper into the root cause of missed expectations, we found out Tom and his team had developed a ‘shorthand’ way of speaking and listening. You may know what this looks like in your own life. Do you have someone in your life where you can almost finish one another’s sentences? Or better yet, read each other’s minds? That was happening with Tom and his team. Tom would barely finish talking about a project or task and employees would enthusiastically take on the project and would be off and running.

By exploring what was going on at the root of the issue, what emerged was an interesting pattern that led Tom to his big ‘ah-ha.’ He was missing critical and essential elements in communicating with this team. Tom wasn’t being specific or clear with how he was setting expectations. While he thought he was, it became apparent there were key areas he skipped when communicating with each team member. For illustration purposes, I’ve italicized the areas that were consistently missing in Tom’s communication.

  1. The nature of the task or project.
  2. Why it is important.
  3. What success looks like.
  4. When the deliverable is due.
  5. What happens if the deadline is missed.
  6. Asking for questions, clarification, and/or feedback.

We discussed what it would look like for Tom to consistently use a template like the one described here for each step and to ‘reset’ the table with his team. Tom was completely on board and committed to owning his part by explicitly setting new expectations for performance success for himself and his team.

As we finished our coaching call, Tom committed to the following:

  1. He would hold a team meeting to talk about missed performance expectations, the impact of those missed expectations, and how his lack of setting clear expectations was a contributing factor.
  2. He would openly share with his team the ‘template’ he will use to set expectations for the future and invite each person to openly ask for more information when an element was missing.
  3. On future coaching calls, Tom asked to integrate this specific topic into our conversations, looking for continued accountability and acknowledgment of progress.

Tom also expressed embarrassment about how his lack of leadership created such a significant impact on the performance of his team. At the same time, he said he was happy the issue was one he had direct control — his own leadership skills and performance.

What I appreciate about Tom as a leader is that he brought the issue to the forefront of our coaching meeting, with a willingness to explore what was needed to find the underlying cause of the team performance challenges.

Overall, I would describe Tom as an effective leader. While he has his own performance challenges with clearly setting expectations, the fact that he is aware, curious, and willing to look beneath the surface to explore what is getting in the way of success, is what demonstrates good leadership.

Since my coaching call with Tom, I’ve noticed circumstances where not being clear or setting appropriate expectations has an impact in my own life. Just by noticing, I have been able to shift in this area by asking for clarity and by setting clear expectations. My goal with this blog is to help you gain awareness and make necessary adjustments in this leadership area for yourself.

jdhInsights is here to help you understand what it takes to set and manage expectations in a way that transforms your leadership and improves your team’s performance. I’d love to talk with you about your leadership and your organization. Please feel free to contact me at