Set clear expectations so employees know why they are working and what they should strive to accomplish. Setting clear expectations improves communication and team alignment.
Being intentional about setting clear expectations is fundamental to good leadership. Stating expectations aligns the leader and the team on the goal to be accomplished and who is fulfilling which roles to get there.
Why We Set Clear Expectations
When someone on your team does the wrong thing, it is almost always a result of not setting expectations properly. Many leaders may initially resist that conclusion, but careful examination of the situation will usually reveal that the person lacked either the necessary context from their leadership to make good decisions (remedy this by Providing Context, Not Control) or a clear understanding of what their leader expected from them.
How to Set Clear Expectations
Follow the steps below to set clear expectations with your team member. While there are several steps, you can be concise in covering each one. Focus on meeting the objective of each step. Any additional narrative or detail may feel important—and is perhaps worth discussing later—but is likely unnecessary for setting your team member on the right path to get the work done.
1. Give an overview of the work you need completed
Start by explaining exactly what work needs to be done. For example, if you are asking someone to cover for you in an job candidate’s interview, they are going to need to know what questions to ask, what you look for in an interviewee, and what the interviewee has already been told about the position they have applied for. You do not have to describe every single interview question you would ask, but you need to make the list available and give the covering team member adequate time to review the list and seek clarity from you before the interview.
2. State the goal
In one sentence, describe the ultimate goal you expect the team member to accomplish by doing this work. Continuing with the interview example, you may say “our goal is to hire a great office manager that will help employees focus on their work.” The goal does not describe how things should be done, but rather the high-level result or benefit you hope to receive once the work is complete.
3. Describe how the work relates to the goal
Reiterate both the work to be done and the goal by explaining how they are related. For example, their covering for an office manager interview is so you can more quickly fill a needed office manager position.
4. List known constraints and business requirements
Outline any known constraints that should be considered in the course of this work. For example, is there a specific budget that must be adhered to? What is the desired timeline for completion? Is there a deadline? Are there things that must not be impacted by this work? Are there any interactions between this work and existing people, processes, or tools? Ensure these are explicitly called out, especially if touching some restricted area of business seems like a logical option for attaining the goal. Listing known constraints may prompt some questions from your team member. They may wish to validate the constraints before continuing, which is a worthwhile exercise that should take just a few moments of your time. You may uncover some invalid assumptions or movable constraints that can simplify the task at hand.
Similarly, outline any business requirements for the work product. Are there internal stakeholders who are paying attention to this work? They may have specific requirements in mind that need to be specified before your team member begins work.
5. List available resources to help complete the work
Also describe any helpful resources that are available to assist the team member in completing their work. This may be additional people on staff who can contribute some time to the work, tools, relevant processes, or educational materials they can reference that can simplify some of the work. At a minimum, let your team member know that you will be available to answer questions as they undertake your requested task. This statement of availability will encourage your team member to voice questions or concerns before they miss your expectations for completion.
6. Describe the criteria for success
If there is a stakeholder other than you reviewing the team member’s work, tell your team member who the stakeholder is. Also describe any objectives that must be met. If there are quantitative metrics that should move in a certain direction, share those as well.
7. Ask for questions
Explicitly ask your team member for questions before finishing the discussion. Give them a moment to think about the work, and review any documentation you’ve handed them before moving on. Ensure they feel as though you have satisfactorily answered any questions they have before you continue.
8. Confirm their understanding of the work.
While no one likes repeating things to confirm their understanding, it is a beneficial exercise that ensures you both know what is needed and what is expected. This doesn’t have to be a recap of your entire conversation. Ask a few questions to ensure they get the gist:
- Do you believe the work I've outlined will meet our goal of X?
- Which constraints or requirements I've outlined do you feel will be most difficult to handle?
- Do you believe the work will meet Y, one of our criteria for success?
If they can answer these questions in a way that demonstrates understanding of the scope of their work, you can continue.
9. Confirm their acceptance of the work
Explicitly ask for the team member to accept responsibility for this work. If they verbally commit to this work, they will be more likely to prioritize and complete it. If they are not willing to accept the work, try to determine why. Is the work undesirable, unclear, or impossible to complete? Despite your conversation up to this point, the team member may have assumptions about your expectations that still need to be ironed out. Asking for them to accept responsibility for this work gives them another opportunity to ask questions and clarify any misunderstanding.
10. Follow up with a written outline of your discussion
Reinforce your team member’s understanding of your expectations by following up with an email or other documentation they can reference. Later, when you’re unavailable and they’re busily working away, they may forget some of what you discussed. Having a reference handy—even if it’s a very concise outline—will help jog their memory and get back to work quickly.
When you follow the steps above to set clear expectations, your team members will be more likely to achieve results. Further, if they encounter difficulty during their work—say, they realize that the work does not achieve the stated goal or they uncover new constraints—they will be more likely to keep you informed. Taking time to explain why this work matters will help employees realize that the work is important to you. This motivates people to raise concerns that may impede them from meeting your expectations.
Alice would like for her direct report, Bob, to cover for a job candidate’s interview. She has a scheduling conflict but doesn’t want to delay the interview.
Alice: Hey Bob, I need you to do me a favor if you can.
Bob: Sure, what is it?
Alice: We have a job candidate for our open office manager position. His name is Carl and he's coming to the office Friday at 9am for an interview. However, I have a customer meeting I need to attend so I won't make it. I'd really like for you to cover for me and attend Carl's interview in my place.
Alice: We've had this opening for a long time, so I don't want to delay the interview any longer if I have to. The goal is to help our team focus on their work without worrying about taking care of ancillary things around the office. By bringing in the right person for our office manager role, we'll free up everyone else to stop worrying about stocking the kitchen and bathrooms, answering the phone, and tracking inventory.
Alice: Carl has a great résumé and passed our phone screen with flying colors. The last stage is this face-to-face interview. If it goes well, we'll hire him and we'll be able to free up the rest of the team from the work that's typically handled by the office manager. It's important to me that our team can focus, and getting this interview done will help us do that. If he's the right person for the job, your participation in the interview will make that happen faster.
Bob: Okay, 9am on Friday? I can make that work. Is there anything else I need to know? What am I supposed to ask Carl in the interview? Is there a list of questions or something?
Alice: Yes, I'll send you a copy of my standard interview questions right after this. I'll also send you the office manager job description, which Carl has seen, and Carl's résumé so you have a bit more context. For the interview questions, I rarely make it all the way through the list. I'll highlight a few key questions that we need solid answers to, but you can use your judgment on the rest. There's no "right" answer for any of the questions, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on Carl's responses before we make a hiring decision. Please take detailed notes during the interview and write down your overall assessment.
Alice: If Carl asks about salary or begins to state salary requirements, please ask him to follow up with me via email. I trust you with that information, but company policy states I can't share that, so I'd rather Carl just communicate with me directly for any compensation questions. Please spend as long as you think is useful in the interview. We'll have a few other decision makers in the room and I'll make them aware you're filling in for me. You're welcome to ask Carl your own questions if you have something you feel my list of questions is missing. However, please refresh yourself on our HR guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate questions. For example, you can't ask about political or religious affiliations during the interview.
Bob: Right, that all makes sense.
Alice: If at any point you don't feel comfortable, you can always defer to someone else in the room. Carl may ask you questions about the company or your work experience, and you can share whatever you're comfortable sharing. However, the other interviewers will gladly step in if you don't think things are moving in the right direction.
Alice: By the end of the interview, I'd like you to be able to confidently vote yes or no on hiring Carl. If your response is not a resounding "yes," then it's a "no." If you're not sure how you feel, you didn't find him to be a good enough fit to put your name on. So pass on him if you're not sure. Again, I'd also appreciate your notes so I'll know a bit more about Carl and how you reached your decision.
Alice: Do you have any questions?
Bob: Not at the moment. I think that all makes sense. It sounds like I have some reading to do before Friday, though.
Alice: Okay, well if anything comes up, don't be afraid to ask. I'm here until Thursday evening so I can meet again if we need to talk through the interview process before you meet Carl.
Alice: Do you believe that your participation in the interview will help us get closer to selecting the right candidate for the office manager position?
Bob: Yes, like you said, I'd rather we get the interview handled this week if it can help lighten our team's workload.
Alice: Great. Do you think there's anything particularly difficult about this? Anything you're worried about?
Bob: I've never seen your interview questions before and want to ensure I do a good job, so I'm probably going to ask you some questions about that list before Friday. I'm not too worried about it, though.
Alice: Okay, yes, if you have any questions about the list or anything else, just let me know. Do you believe your participation in the interview will help us make the right hiring decision?
Bob: Yes, I've enjoyed doing interviews for other positions in the past and feel like I have good judgment for hiring the right people. So with your question list and the other documentation you're providing, I'm sure I'll reach a sound decision.
Alice: Perfect. So you're good with taking the interview?
Alice: Thank you so much! I appreciate the cover. I'll send you an outline of the requirements we've covered along with the other documentation we've discussed. Again, if you have any questions or concerns after reviewing everything, please let me know.