Set clear expectations and stick to them
Winslow Wong 

A common workplace complaint is that bosses can’t stick to decisions about the most important ways for employees to spend their time. One week, you’re supposed to drop everything to work on project A for the next month. Three days later, your boss has an idea for project B and so project A is forgotten. The next week, she wants all your energy focused on project C. As a result, employees stop taking any of the work seriously, knowing from experience that there’s no point in giving it their all when the priorities will change soon anyway.

When business leaders and managers constantly change their minds or, worse still, move goalposts at their whim and fancy, employees often wonder what is expected of them. They usually don’t perform up to expectations as it’s tough for them to meet performance goals when they don’t know exactly what’s really expected of them.

To inspire and sustain high performance, you need to set clear expectations for your team, both individually and collectively. Employees need clear direction from their managers on what is expected of them and the timeline to deliver. Imagine this: during a weekly meeting, your employee presents what he’s been working on for the whole week only to find that it’s nothing at all like what you expected or wanted from his work. You can be sure that neither of you is going to feel very good when you ask him to redo everything!

If both sides don’t know what the other wants – particularly when the manager keeps moving goalposts – it opens the door to feelings of deep resentment and frustration. And this is one of multiple reasons that employees end up leaving their organisations. Setting expectations from the very start can prevent these kinds of things from happening.

In order for your employees to know your expectations, you must know them yourself! Never use broad and vague instructions like “do your job better” or “you need to focus”. Be as direct and specific as you can by using simple language and being as straightforward as possible, leaving no room for ambiguity and confusion. Focus on details and provide ample practical examples, particularly when dealing with underperformers or new team members. Make the task measurable and don’t forget to set a deadline if applicable. Expectations that are straightforward with no room for misinterpretation will greatly improve your employees’ ability to perform to your satisfaction.

Whenever and wherever possible, break large goals into smaller, measurable pieces as this will help your employees from becoming discouraged. Add these checkpoints or milestones into your succession pathways so that both parties can benchmark and track long-term progress which will help them meet deadlines.

Breaking down projects will not only help employees accomplish goals, it also gives them clear standards on how to move to the next level in the organisation. By being transparent, you earn your employees’ trust and respect. Employees are more likely to stay with the organisation knowing they aren’t stuck doing the same thing with no chance of growth.

It’s great to know what your expectations are, but you must also know the reasons behind them. Simply saying “because I said so” isn’t going to cut. Backing up your expectations with specific reasons as to what positive effects they’ll have for every individual, the team and the organisation will lead to greater acceptance. From my experience and observations, employees tend to be more compliant and willing to meet their leaders’ expectations when they’ve a better understanding of the reasons behind their tasks. They see the context of how their work affects the bigger picture and can wholeheartedly commit to it. And this will reflect on your leadership and give you bragging rights too!

The saying “If you didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen” applies here too. Once the goal or expectation is defined, make sure you document it. It should be so clear to you that it can easily be written on paper or notated digitally. Having it documented actually makes for a great resource for both you and the employee to refer back to so that nobody forgets it later. And it’s a good reminder to the manager not to move goalposts at his whim and fancy.

After setting clear expectations, don’t just walk away and hope for the best. You must know the tasks and projects that your team members are working on and hold them accountable for meeting those expectations. But then, you should also hold yourself accountable for meeting their performance needs. Provide regular measurement of and feedback on their performance. To motivate achievement and accountability, ensure you’re there whenever an employee needs support, which means you must be approachable and responsive, even when you’re in a foul mood or having negative thoughts.

When it comes to knowing what’s expected of them, employees need more than a job description; they must know when they’re performing well and when they’re not. So it’s important for you to clarify expectations and support employees by helping them to prioritise their tasks. Help them to measure the difference they make and hold them accountable for their results. Avail yourself to answer their questions and provide ongoing support, feedback and communication so that they always know whether they’re meeting expectations. And don’t confuse them by moving goalposts when they’re progressing well.


How to encourage high performance

Achievement, accountability and accessibility have an important effect on employee engagement, which plays a crucial role in helping organisations grow. Meeting employees’ achievement needs is a key factor in encouraging high performance. When you help employees set work priorities and performance goals, you give them more freedom in meeting these objectives, enabling them to take initiative and work autonomously. Employees also gain satisfaction from creating their own work procedures and from being involved in these decisions.

Employees who create their goals with their managers will follow through on them with more enthusiasm. If managers fail to meet the employees’ needs or to involve them in setting expectations, employees are less likely to be engaged.

Get regular feedback from your employees and engage with them, not just during year-end performance appraisals. Don’t lecture but have a frank discussion with every employee. Getting employee feedback on expectations, or having them set goals themselves will increase their willingness and motivation to focus on the tasks assigned to them. Instead of a top-down tone of a boss addressing a worker, adapt a more mentor-like approach. Have them tell you what they think your expectations are. Clarify, make changes or suggest improvements, and give them resources or suggestions on how they can meet your expectations.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 256.