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Leading with Clear Expectations

There are two main reasons things don’t get done in any organization. No. 1: Leaders don’t create clear, mutually agreed-upon, written expectations. No. 2: Even if No. 1 does get done, leaders and team members don’t hold each other accountable for those clearly defined written expectations.

If you are a leader, one of your central roles is to make your expectations clear for each of the people you lead. They cannot read your mind. If you don’t make your expectations clear, they are unlikely to be met, which will leave you frustrated. This frustration causes many leaders to behave in a passive-aggressive way toward people, or criticize them outright, when the reality is you set them up for failure by not making your expectations clear.

This is why the Role Description and Scorecard are so important. It is critical that as a leader you are abundantly clear about what you expect from each person you lead. If you are an employee and your leader is not providing clarity around his or her expectations of you—ask!

Nothing will create an expectations gap and all the negativity that comes with it like a lack of communication or poor communication. (Well, there is one thing—flat-out lies—but hopefully you are not in that situation.) Let’s look at it from a deeply personal perspective. Do you know what your leader expects of you? Most leaders think their team members know what is expected of them, and most people think they know what their leader expects of them. Both assumptions are flawed. The result is the emergence of an expectations gap between leaders and direct reports. These can be extremely damaging to their relationship and the outcomes of their work together—but talking to each other about mutual expectations, which is real communication, leads to elevated relationships, both personally and professionally.

When you think about how important it is for each team member to know explicitly what is expected of him or her, it is outrageous how little time and energy we spend getting this right. But here is an exercise to get you started.

Leader: Ask each direct report to take a blank sheet of paper and write down what they think you expect of them in their role.

Direct Report: Focus on the big pieces of the puzzle first. If you have room for the medium and smaller pieces, include them toward the end. When you are finished, keep a copy for yourself and give a copy to your leader.

Leader: Take a blank sheet of paper for each of your direct reports and write down what you expect of them in their role—before you look at what they wrote. Compare what you wrote with what your direct reports wrote and identify significant gaps.

Leader and Direct Report: Meet one-on-one to discuss the differences between what you each wrote.

Leader: Provide a copy of what you wrote to each direct report in these meetings.

Direct Reports: If you are also a leader, complete this exercise with your team members.

Even when very well-considered Role Descriptions and Scorecards are in place, it’s amazing how gaps can develop between what you think your leader expects of you and what she actually expects of you. Every month, quarter, and year should lead to greater clarity about what is expected of every person in the organization.

Most leaders think their expectations are clear, but they aren’t. If you are leading someone, it is your responsibility to ensure that that person is very clear about what you expect of him or her. You are responsible as the leader for managing and ultimately eliminating the expectations gap in this situation.

I have seen this one exercise transform teams. Knowing what your boss expects of you is so fundamental that we often overlook it. In a complex world of constant change and endless communication, it is easy to overlook the basics.

We have become hypnotized by complexity. But simplicity is the key to real innovation, success, fulfillment at work, and satisfaction with life. Even in the most complex roles and industries, simplicity is an essential component of success. Simplicity holds a power that we too often overlook or ignore.

When we act without a clear sense of mission, strategy, and culture, the chances of complicating the simple increase significantly. Make the complex simple, make the simple even simpler, and beware of people who want to complicate things.

The relationship between a leader and those he leads should be grounded in very clear expectations, with as little ambiguity and as few vagaries as possible. Clear expectations give everyone their best chance at success.


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