Healthy Habits for High Performing Leaders: The Art of Communicating Clear Expectations

Healthy Habits for High Performing Leaders: The Art of Communicating Clear Expectations

The leaders I work with often express frustration that their team members need to be accountable. The irony is that the leader’s approach often contributes to the issue. The challenge often comes from the inability to set clear expectations and ensure team members’ commitment and accountability to these expectations. Some leaders naturally excel at setting realistic expectations and holding employees accountable, while others can acquire this skill through training and ongoing practice. Providing support and guidance is essential for those needing assistance to help them develop these competencies into consistent habits.

Let’s look at why expectations are often not met and what can be done to refocus teams to meet expectations.

Are You Facing the Employee Alignment Dysfunction Epidemic? Chances Are, Yes.

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Expectation Alignment Dysfunction (EAD) is a prevalent issue in many organizations, characterized by a mismatch between what employees anticipate from their workplace experience and the reality they encounter. This discrepancy often stems from several factors, including ineffective communication from management, unmet implied promises within the work environment and company culture, and a need for clearer definition and communication of performance expectations. The consequences of EAD are significant, leading to employee disengagement, reduced productivity, and increased turnover rates. This misalignment affects individual employees and has a broader impact on overall performance and morale.

Holding employees accountable requires aligning them with expectations.

Clear expectations are fundamental in guiding employees about their roles, responsibilities, and expected standards as a roadmap to enhance productivity and efficiency. When employees are clear about what is expected, they can direct their efforts more effectively, leading to increased output and better alignment with the organization’s goals. This alignment is crucial; without it, there’s a risk of missing organizational targets, as employees may lack a unified direction.

A Gallup study reveals that almost 50% of U.S. employees need clarification about their work expectations. The authors of the study suggest that this lack of clarity is linked to lower employee engagement.

Accountability is critical in ensuring these expectations are met, not just communicated. It involves establishing performance benchmarks and setting up systems to monitor and review progress. This accountability fosters a culture of responsibility and commitment, enhancing team dynamics by reducing confusion and conflict through clear roles and responsibilities. It also boosts employee morale and engagement, as team members feel their work is recognized and valued. Ultimately, the synergy of clear expectations and strong accountability is key for any organization aiming to achieve efficiency, cultivate a positive work culture, and drive overall success.

Where do leaders go wrong?

Setting and communicating expectations and holding people accountable might appear straightforward, but it’s a complex skill set that even excellent communicators can struggle with. Often, leaders may not fully recognize their shortcomings in this area. Let’s explore why managers and leaders often fail to set expectations effectively.

  1. A common issue is that leaders frequently lack clarity in their expectations. They may not always clearly define these expectations to themselves, leading to a situation where expectations are not effectively communicated. This often results in frustration due to the organization’s perceived lack of clear expectations.
  2. Hiring Managers often avoid setting clear expectations during interviews, especially in a competitive job market, focusing instead on filling the position. This approach can lead to future problems. Research highlights the need to establish expectations during hiring and onboarding to ensure role clarity and alignment.
  3. Leaders are generally adept at setting performance expectations and defining outcomes but often fall short in specifying desired behaviors. For example, saying, “I want people to take initiative,” lacks clarity.  It doesn’t provide information on what specific actions or behaviors this entails. Leaders should clearly define these values to ensure their expectations align with employees’ understanding and actions.
  4. Leaders often assume their expectations are obvious, thinking, “Everyone knows that.” However, this is not the case. A significant source of conflict in the workplace stems from unmet expectations, which frequently occur because of the mistaken belief that everyone shares the same assumptions, even when these expectations are not explicitly communicated.
    The book “The Chocolate Conversation: Lead Bittersweet Change, Transform Your Business” highlights how words can have different meanings to different people. For instance, when the word ‘chocolate’ is mentioned, some might think of ‘Hershey kisses,’ others might envision a ‘milkshake,’ and some might simply think of the color ‘brown.’ This concept also applies to expectations; what one person assumes to be clear and understood might be interpreted differently by someone else. This underscores the challenge of ensuring that what we communicate, especially regarding expectations, is understood as intended.

guide to having difficult conversations

How to develop expectations and habits?

As the lead faculty for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program, I have observed an interesting pattern. We achieve better outcomes when we establish clear expectations from the beginning and then allow the participants to share their expectations with the cohort and the faculty.

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Additionally, setting up team expectations by allowing the participants to share what they expect of each other further enhances the cohesion and accountability within the cohort. This process is a microcosm of what the leaders in the program experience in their businesses.  allowing us to compare the difference in outcomes when we clearly set expectations from the beginning and when we fail to do so.. This approach fosters a sense of commitment among the participants, ensuring punctuality and dedication to their work. Reviewing this continuously, without a fixed start and stop point, enables them to evaluate how effectively their efforts align with the initial expectations.

Below are some healthy habits to support accountability and meeting expectations:

  1. Define expectations in behavioral terms and document them for clarity. This should encompass not just performance goals but also organizational values, what employees can expect from their leader, and how team members are expected to interact with each other. Clear, written guidelines on all these aspects help create a cohesive and well-understood work environment.
  2. Communicate often and early. During the interview process, be honest and straightforward, avoiding any hedging that could lead to misaligned expectations later. However, if you’re past the hiring stage, the start of a new year or the launch of a project or initiative presents an ideal opportunity to set clear expectations. If there isn’t a natural starting point, taking a step back and acknowledging any previous lack of clarity is beneficial. This dialogue should ensure employees understand each other’s expectations and address discrepancies. For instance, when discussing a value like respect, it’s important to define what it truly means in the context of your team. Does it imply always agreeing, or is it more about adjusting reactions and interactions? Such clarity is key to a harmonious and productive work environment.
  3. Provide context for expectations because when people understand the ‘why’ behind an action, they are more likely to be motivated and committed to fulfilling it. Explaining the reasons and objectives behind an expectation helps employees see the bigger picture and how their role fits into the team’s or organization’s overall goals. This understanding enhances engagement and fosters a sense of purpose and alignment with the organization’s vision and values.
  4. Ensure clarity around expectations, guidelines, and values by asking questions and seeking confirmation of understanding. Once this clarity is achieved, asking for a direct commitment is key. Ask, “Are you willing to commit to these expectations, guidelines, and values?” When individuals explicitly agree, they are more likely to adhere to these standards. This commitment also simplifies addressing any future issues. You can refer back to their initial commitment, reducing the space for excuses and reinforcing accountability. This approach helps maintain a clear, consistent standard of behavior and performance.
  5. When expectations and priorities shift, acknowledge them and communicate the reasons behind them to your team. Recognizing and explicitly stating that expectations have evolved helps maintain transparency and trust. Explaining the rationale for the change ensures that team members understand the context and the necessity of adapting to new circumstances. This approach keeps everyone aligned and reinforces the adaptability and responsiveness crucial in a dynamic work environment.
  6. Reinforce expectations on an ongoing basis; no set-and-forget or autopilot mode exists when it comes to expectations. Continuous reinforcement is key. The adage “What’s paid attention to gets paid attention to” holds here. If leaders set expectations but fail to reinforce and monitor them consistently, these expectations will likely be overlooked or forgotten. Regularly revisiting and emphasizing these expectations ensures they remain a focal point for the team, guiding their actions and decisions. This consistent attention from leaders is crucial for maintaining the standards and behaviors they seek to establish.

Looking for Assistance?

Elevate your team’s performance with Action Strategies’ customized program tailored to your needs. Our custom approach includes a focused module on setting expectations, among other key areas, to enhance your organization’s effectiveness.

To discover more about how we can support your goals or bring this transformative program to your organization, contact us today. Let’s collaborate to create a path to success for your organization!



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POSTED ON: Leadership