How to set and manage expectations as a leader or small business owner.

Over the Summer Holidays (which is normally 6 weeks over Christmas in Australia), I’d often play board games with my two sisters. A usual favourite was Monopoly, and games could go for days (or weeks) and have good natured banter (or all out war).

When everyone is clear on the rules, play is fair. I remember playing with other friends who had different rules (like all tax money goes not to the bank, but to the middle of the board, and ‘free parking’ means you got to keep all that money). That makes it more challenging because you don’t know the expectation, or when a new ‘rule’ will pop up.

Now imagine you’re with a friend who wants to play a board game, but unlike your friend, you’ve never played this game before. Ever. You don’t know the rules of the game or even how you win. You don’t know if you need a partner or how to advance around the board.

You ask your friend for some explanation and guidance, but she’s vague and suggests you just go with the flow and figure it out as you play. Hmmm.

Well, that’s not much fun for you or your friend (what kind of friends do you hang out with?!). Plus, that kind of uncertainty causes frustration and makes you want to walk away from the game. *flips board upside down*

The same can be said for uncertainty in the work environment: Vagueness and too much of a go with the flow attitude might make your team feel like sending the metaphorical game flying off the table. 

Why setting expectations as a boss is so important.

Not to be preachy to you, but setting employee expectations is an essential part of managing a small business. From the hiring process to onboarding and developing a trusting, productive workplace, creating crystal-clear expectations sets everyone up for their best chance to shine. You want people to want to work for you.

To do that, as a leader, you need to ensure that your team knows what’s expected of them, from their job duties and performance, and how they can achieve their goals; what it looks like to meet specific metrics, and what will happen when they do or don’t meet those goals. 

A new hire often receives a detailed list of job expectations when first starting. That’s great, but it’s also important to keep it up. The communication often fizzles out when teams get busy and regular check-ins get pushed off the calendar. You’re busy, but when you transition into the leader or CEO role, it’s your job to maintain those check-ins and guide the team.

As a business owner, you’re responsible for setting up your company’s culture and defining what success looks like—and that means communicating these values clearly and regularly. 

How to set expectations with employees.

You can only expect your employees to do their jobs well if you’ve been clear about what is required with specific milestones and agreed-upon goals. This isn’t to say you should give directions like a dictator. Far from it!

It’s more about defining clear guidelines and drawing the outlines of success. What is the big picture everyone is working towards?

Here are a few tips for setting goals and managing expectations…

  1. Make the implicit explicit (no, not swearing).

If you’re unhappy with the performance of someone in your team, do they know what the expectation was, to begin with? Or is it an unspoken expectation? Of course, we presume everyone knows since it’s clear to us! But it’s not the case unless we communicate those details.

A simple but transformative slogan that Brene Brown heard from an Alcoholics Anonymous program, and wrote about her book, Dare to Lead

“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

“Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind,” writes Brown. 

If your employee is guessing what to do or how to do it, they’re burning a lot of time and energy. And in turn, can feel stress and frustration.

  1. Make goals tangible and known.

Creating specific, tangible goals for the company and clearly and consistently communicating them to all team members is one of the best ways to ensure everyone knows what they’re working toward. 

It’s also the best way to keep track of progress, which is important when working with a team of people with different skill sets and responsibilities.

  1. Create a supportive environment.

A supportive environment is vital for healthy working relationships. When employees feel like they can ask questions, make mistakes, and learn from their experiences without fear of failure or judgment, they’ll be more likely to put in the effort required for success.  

How to set expectations for yourself.

Setting expectations for yourself as a boss is just as important as setting them for your employees. It’s easy to get caught up in everything you need to do—and forget to stop and reflect on your guidelines as a leader.

Here are some leadership expectations to keep in mind for yourself as a boss:

  • Be flexible. You’re not going to get every decision right. However, taking feedback without getting defensive or angry will help you learn and improve in each situation.
  • Don’t micromanage. Give your employees the direction and freedom they need to do their jobs well. They’ll feel motivated and valued—and will perform better. I wrote an entire blog post about this, and recorded episode 35 of the Level Up Leadership Podcast.
  • Welcome feedback. Listen as passionately as you want to be heard. Asking employees for their opinions and ideas is an important part of a productive, honest, and respected team. 

Setting clear expectations is kind. 

If you’ve been unhappy with the performance of someone on your team, take a few minutes to reflect on the spoken (or unspoken) expectations. Things may seem SO CLEAR to you that they should be apparent to others as well. But that’s just not the case. Just like when you know the rules of a board game (because you’ve played before), but the other person is new to it.

It’s never too late to talk about expectations in the workplace. If you’ve been operating without clear goals and direction for any length of time, now is an excellent time to take stock of where your team stands and begin making updates. Remember that being clear is kind.

If you’d like to fast-track your leadership learning and get some handy tools to help set clear expectations (without micromanaging), check out my Delegation Playbook toolkit. This resource includes everything you need for communication clarity & delegation. And it comes with a tracking template that’s worth the investment on its own.

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