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How To Set Realistic Expectations With Employees

JUN 30, 2016

Updated on October 13, 2020:

View our related piece, specific to expectation-setting during the coronavirus pandemic: Setting Realistic Employee Expectations: Stability for the Employee + the Company


The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the importance of open and honest communication. As millions of workers shifted to full-time remote work for the first time, managers and employees worldwide grappled with how to set realistic expectations under these unique circumstances.

The following recommendations remain true through the coronavirus pandemic. As employees and managers adjust to new circumstances, it is most crucial to maintain frequent and open communication, to listen to what an employee needs to be successful at their job (and be deliberate in asking), and to monitor for burnout.

This is a challenging time to be a manager. It is up to HR and business leaders to ensure their managers have the skills necessary to fully support their teams. Inspire offers various training and customized solutions to develop leadership skills and foster high-performing teams—especially today.

We’re here to help when you need us.

Original post (June 30, 2016):

Now that we have reached the mid-year point, it is a good time to take stock of the annual goals you set with your employees in the first quarter. By this point in the business cycle, goals need to be refreshed and tweaked to keep pace with the many changes that have taken place in the marketplace. Business priorities are constantly in flux, and employee goals must mirror these shifts.

Keep in mind that a lot has changed since the days of twice-yearly, goal-oriented performance reviews. In today’s workplace, there has been a distinct shift away from goal setting to expectations setting. This lets leaders adjust goals based on the macro needs of the business and have a more flexible working relationship. Checking in with employees in January and June isn’t going to cut it anymore. We counsel our clients, (particularly leaders of Millennials), to check in at least once every month to take a pulse on how they are tracking against expectations.

You might be thinking that touching base every single month is overkill. We disagree. Let’s say a marketing division of a consumer products company is planning to roll out a new gluten-free cereal line. A multitude of tasks needs to happen before launching the new product. But if you just check in once or twice over 12 months, you are likely to miss important information—be it market research or competitive intelligence—that could impact your roll-out strategy. So much happens on a daily basis: think about what can happen on social media in a single hour! Monthly touch-bases aren’t just a nicety; they are essential. Don’t forget that you will set expectations with your employees in both formal and informal ways throughout the year, and these monthly check-ins help you stay on top of actual accomplishments and make adjustments when needed.

A common question we hear from our clients is: how do you make sure that the expectations you are setting with your team are realistic? Ask yourself and have your employees ask themselves these questions:

  • What anticipated business outcome would you like to accomplish?
  • How and why will the objective be accomplished?
  • Is the goal realistic?
  • What is the timeframe for the outcome?
  • Can you measure your success?

Let’s take a closer look at setting realistic expectations. Consider these tips:

1. Make expectations crystal clear.

Expectations should be simplistically written and should clearly define what your employee needs to do. Strong leaders lay out exactly what success looks like. For example, if a call-center employee needs to improve her customer satisfaction score, you would tell her to stick to the pre-approved script at all times and quickly loop in a supervisor if there is a situation outside of her comfort zone that needs escalation. If she fails to achieve these goals, you have made it clear that she will not have met expectations.

2. Tell employees WHY.

Let your employees know why what they’re doing matters. Explain to them how their roles fit into the overall organization. For example, an employee may look at proofing a document as a junior task or a waste of time. But once you provide the business context, telling the employee that the client relies on the company to provide error-free work, the employee can better understand the importance of the task at hand.

3. Set up for success.

One of the best gifts you can give your employees is to set them up for success. You can do this by making sure they have the appropriate knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to accomplish what you are asking them to do. Don’t make it so easy for them that they don’t feel challenged, but provide enough definition so that outcomes are achievable. For example, you may have an employee charged with creating a new logo, but he isn’t skilled at Adobe. He may need to take a computer class or get advice from the graphics team to be able to achieve success. It’s your job as a manager to make sure the employee knows how to access the support needed to execute the work.

4. Measure success.

When setting expectations, it is crucial that they are measurable. For you to know whether your employee has actually accomplished a goal, you need to have tangible evidence. Measurable goals in one department may be dramatically different than in another, but the key is to find several short-term or smaller steps within the overall plan that can be quantified. Skilled leaders help their teams track metrics, whether it’s sharing revenue progress or customer satisfaction data. Even more impactful are managers who measure success in a visual way. Think about how sales organizations use charts with each sales person’s revenue to date vs. target—to not only illustrate overall success but to create healthy competition within the sales team. Many of our clients have found that adding creativity to their measurement tools goes a long way in keeping employees engaged in a process that can be overwhelming at times.

5. Carve out the time.

We cannot stress enough how important monthly check-ins are to employees. Putting in the time for one-on-one work with employees on a regular, monthly basis will have a huge payout in the long run. We suggest blocking out a set time each month with your employees (such as the first Thursday of each month at 10:00 am). Treat this time as sacred in your calendar—don’t cancel because of other pressing issues. This shows your employees how much you value them, how much you’re looking out for them, and how much you care about them and their career development.

6. Listen.

Many managers make the mistake of doing most of the talking during monthly check-ins or rushing to fill in any awkward silences. The reality is that managers are better off doing much more listening than talking. Our clients tell us how much they actually learn when they practice active listening—they hear whether their direct reports are facing challenges, whether they truly understand the expectations set and what steps are needed to reach them. Your tone is critical. The more supportive and encouraging you can be, the better relationship you will forge. Resist the urge to speak in a belittling or condescending manner, no matter how frustrated you may be with your employee. Sometimes employees need to hear the expectations more than once or need them explained in different ways before they really resonate.

When setting expectations with employees, remaining flexible is key. Depending on the situation or your relationship with your employees, you may choose to raise or lower the bar as time passes. Setting clear and realistic expectations, and discussing them every month, is a sure-fire way to keep the lines of communication open. With this kind of personalized attention, you are helping to stack the deck in your favor, and hopefully avoiding employee turnover down the road.