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Leadership at All Levels

Developing and Managing Expectations of Employees

Lisa Harrington | June 2, 2017

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Abstract success flow chart

If the goal for managers is to measure the quality of employees' work, then they must set measurable expectations of employees for the employees to use as guidelines of their progress. Give them the map to success. But, to do that, you first have to know what you want from the employee! 

One of life's most difficult questions is: "What do I want?" Our society is so rich, so full of options, and so flexible and tolerant, that we have choices for nearly everything. Even in our very worst economic times, we are the richest country on the planet. We can measure it in our obesity rates, our number of cars, phones, and computers, or by employment and bank account size. It is staggering, and it is a blessing.

In fact, the choices can be overwhelming! For most of us, having such a long list of options for everything from frozen yogurt to cars to clothing actually makes things more confusing. We worry that we are making a bad choice. Will it last? Will it hurt us? Is this going to work? Do I look good in it? Will my friends like me better? Will I be ridiculed for making a mistake?

Because all the details of every decision could be researched via the Internet, some people experience paralysis by analysis. Decision-making reluctance is common, and it's deadly for managers. Usually, we'll have only 80 percent of the information about a project before we have to act. In this day and age, we need to be nimble and move quickly!

Developing Expectations of Employees

These are tougher decisions than choosing a frozen yogurt flavor or which kind of a car to drive. It involves looking backward a little, so that we can look forward. It can mean looking back at the current structure of the organization, the people available, the marketplace, and much more. After all, our decisions about our employees can make or break the financial success of the organization.

Bad decisions about employees can irreparably affect morale in the office—whether it is because you are keeping someone on board who shouldn't be there or letting someone go when it's not obvious to the rest of the staff as to why. Loss of morale can take years to restore.

Rewriting Organizational Charts and Workflow

Because it's so important, we should start at the top of the funnel—look down from 30,000 feet. To set expectations for any particular position in the office, we should know how the positions all intertwine. If we've done this carefully with the job descriptions in the firm, they will provide guidance for measuring each employee's value. However, if job descriptions are more than 3–5 years' old, it's probably time for updates.

The first question to ask is whether the organization is still structured the way it was 5 years ago? Should it be? Have technological improvements meant shifting and rearranging of job duties? If so, the job descriptions need to be updated, and so should the organizational chart. The org chart is what takes us up to 30,000 feet. There are plenty of good guidelines out there about setting up the org chart. Two viewpoints to consider when building the chart: How will the customer see it? How will the employee on the lowest rung see it? Looking at the workflow with these fresh eyes can reveal things we may not otherwise have seen. Does the staffing make sense from the bottom up?

Workflow can be reviewed from these two perspectives as well. How does the work move through the building? How long has it been since that's been checked formally? Basic flowcharts may show us areas of efficiency that can be improved.

Assessing Talent

Once we're sure the workflow and structures are optimal, we can move on to the more human issue: Is the talent in the building now to work that flow, or is fresh talent required? Can we rearrange job duties within the list of employees we already have? Is there anyone who is underutilized?

If we need to reassess the talents of the folk in the firm now, consider the idea of a profile. While no profile is perfect, they can help us to see what areas come naturally to members of the staff. Remember, if natural talents are tapped, the result is always better. People like to do what they do well, and they do well at what they like. The effect is cumulative. The more successful they are, the better they are!

The blend of the talents of the staff and the workflow that is required to provide your product to your customer is the magic that you have to work as a manager. How do you balance the two, while juggling budgets, organic growth, and turnover? Part of the answer is by not trying to do everything on your own.

For example, who should write the procedures manual? The folks doing the job know it better than anyone, so shouldn't they write that particular documentation? This can be a general step-by-step guide, or you could ask for particular detail. But it's helpful to start with the folks who do the job every day and edit from there.

Communicating Your Expectations of Employees

Articulation of expectations is an entirely different set of issues. Everything isn't in a job description, but the main key performance indicators should be. There may also be expectations as to style, or approach, that have nothing to do with the results documented in the job description or even the procedures manual.

Do you want to know every detail of the research within a certain project so that no one makes a move without your knowledge? (I hope not; micromanagement is its own curse, but that's a story for another day.) Or, maybe you just want to build the outer limitations for your group and let them run on their own. Be careful not to get too loose with this, either. You're still going to want both efficiency and effectiveness. My favorite saying as a manager is that I'll give you all the rope you need to hang yourself—but I'll never let the trap door open under you.

Despite the vast information all around us available now literally at our fingertips in our smart phones, we still struggle as a species to communicate well. The recipe for disaster is a simple one: "I don't know what I want to begin with, and, even if I did, I don't know how to express it to my team!"

It's easier to say what we don't want. This is especially true after the fact. Once we're looking at the result, we can more easily see if it met our unspoken, sometimes unknown, expectations. It's like buying a new suit without trying it on. But it's not fair to our employees to judge them this way, is it? After all, we can return the suit, but the employees can't get that time back. It is incumbent on managers to communicate their expectations clearly from the beginning. And, to keep saying it in different ways, adjusting as needed, until they are fully understood. Sometimes having a particular expectation or requirement repeated back to us, like the old telephone game, even helps clarify the message.


If you are having trouble with establishing and communicating your expectations to employees, why not try out a few ideas on a small group of employees; maybe you can get a representative group of folks in a room together for lunch and talk about what needs work. Just tackle one or two things at a time. Ask lots of questions. Learn by listening to their ideas and thoughts. Take lots of notes. Then see if you can blend their ideas with your vision. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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