Setting clear expectations 2005-04-19

During my years of managing and being managed, there is one aspect in particular that I've noticed is often badly handled.

Setting expectations is a hard requirement for getting the performance you want out of somebody.

But it is also a hard requirement for keeping someone motivated.

From personal experience, I know that if I don't get clear expectations communicated to me, two things will happen:

- I'll find it hard to stay motivated, because I won't know what will be the right thing to do. I might know what would be good for the product, but I won't know if that's what my manager wants, and I won't know if it will be rewarded or punished (with a scathing review, for instance), or even if conflicting strategy has been agreed "higher up".

- I'll work on what I want to believe is important, not on what the business believes is important. If you're working on an area where you're a visionary, that's cool to an extent. You can play around with whatever you want, and the results may be great. However, though you might know what is needed, you won't know what your boss will be measuring.

That uncertainty is destructive.

I've experienced it and hated it under bad managers, and I've seen what happens to others whenever I have been too preoccupied to set clear expectations for them.

Nothing is worse than a manager saying "I've got a hands off approach, so I'll let you do what you feel is best". Translation: I don't know what the heck you do, and I don't care enough to find out.

That does not mean that giving your team members freedom can't be good, or even important, with the right people. But it means that you must still sit down with them and set targets, goals and expectations.

And when you agree on those goals, you must follow them up, and demonstrate that they matter (that you do bring them up in the year end review, for instance), or you can set all the targets you want, and most people will slowly test the limits, and then start ignoring them - perhaps not intentionally, but because there are other things they want to spend their time on which they think are more important (and, they rationalise with good reason, you've admitted so because you never did ask for that report that was 3 weeks overdue, so it couldn't have mattered that much - never mind that the report might have been there to set a deadline and force them to focus on doing the work they're reporting on in the first place).

Setting expectations of yourself is hard, and few people will consistently be able to do it and push themselves at the same time. Getting clear expectations from someone else enables you to see where your focus should be.

Personally I'm the kind of person who works best with a deadline looming, and so I prefer to have clear milestone deliverables, because that forces me to do the work in chunks rather than in a mad rush at the end of a project. The alternative requires a lot more discipline in following something up every day.

It's not always about performance - I can push myself to deliver on a regular basis, but that's where motivation comes it: It's demotivating to be the one that has to push yourself, instead of having someone give you clear feedback when you do well or when you don't deliver.

Another issue ensuring the expectations are measuable. In a way it confuses the point, because an expectation that isn't measurable isn't really an expectation at all, but just a sentiment of what people want to feel about your performance when they think of it. "Should have finished a major project" isn't a real expectation unless your organization have a clear unambiguous definition of what "major" means.

It still leaves you in the dark wondering if you and your boss will both agree that project Foo that had you working 80 hour weeks and live on caffeine was major, or if they think it wasn't such a big deal because it was delivered on time, on budget, and was really only meant to be a 2-3 month little thingie for you to do befure it ballooned when someone added extra requirements.

Next time you sit down with your boss, ask for his/her expectations. Write them down. Keep those notes, and look at them regularly, and ask if they've changed and if they've been met.

And if you manage, sit your staff down one by one and make sure they know what your expectations are.

You'll all be happier.

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