6 Key Elements of Setting Clear Expectations

Setting clear expectations is an imperative for achieving the desired results. Expectations fall short due to lack of clarity. This often is a result of assumption as to what the expectation is. This is true in managing people, projects or relationships

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We recently suffered a challenge with a client because we had assumed, within a compressed time frame, that given the limited time, the client would accept the alternative we delivered. Such was not the case; I am embarrassed to say. Fortunately, a good relationship with the client had already been established and after a good deal of apologizing on our end, we were able to help the client in a way that was more closely aligned with their expectations. However, this clearly was a missed opportunity for our business to delight the client. I own that.

In our business, this is the exception rather than the rule. But it does underscore the need for clear expectations. Projects fail, or more often, incur large cost overruns because expectations were not clear. Relationships fail for the same reason. Here are 6 things to consider as you lay out expectations.

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1. Know Your Mind

It is critical you understand your own expectations. Consider this with respect to relationships, career, business and other facets of your life.

In relationships it is not unusual to see couples go through painful separation because initial expectations of the relationship were based on short term infatuation rather than long term expectations of what they wanted from themselves and their partners in the relationship.

From a business perspective, years ago while working for a large company, I supported marketing and sales. I was involved in sourcing, including requests for proposal (RFP) and requests for quote (RFQ) and negotiating contracts. My internal customers – the different marketing teams – would meet with the creative agencies and invite me to the meetings so I was involved at the beginning and had context. Often the creative agencies would ask what the marketing teams wanted, to which the response was often, “We’ll know it when we see it.” Unscrupulous agencies played this for all it was worth. The more scrupulous and caring agencies would struggle with trying to ferret out some clear expectation. This was often done through an iterative process that took time and was still expensive. Agencies don’t do all that work for free; it is usually baked into the final offer. Otherwise they would not survive. The point is that in either event, if the expectation is not clear, the cost goes up. Therefore, it is best to clearly know what you want up front, so you can articulate the expectation.

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2. Speak Your Mind

One thing people often do is hold back their thoughts in hopes that the other party will eventually “get it” or guess what the expectation is. This is a frequent occurrence in relationships. The problem is that it is worse than aiming for a moving target. With a moving target, you are at least aware a target exists. If you do not speak your voice, the other party has no idea that you even have an expectation, let alone whether it is moving around.

This is often exhibited in the workplace by those that assert that, “My work should speak for itself.” True as that may be, it does not reflect reality. Other people are often articulating their expectations for promotion, pay and opportunity while others are waiting for their often-excellent – and sometimes superior – work to speak for itself. Unfortunately, as good as the work may be, it does not at all articulate expectation, which is something in the future. It articulates very clearly the past. And the past does not equal the future.

In order to be heard, you need to speak your mind. If this is difficult for you, there is a plethora of content on the web on how to engage in such a conversation in a manner that helps you get your point across, while at the same time being both assertive and respectful.

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3. Be Specific

Some might consider you to be nit-picky if you are specific. However, being specific allows you to minimize the potential for misunderstanding. Misunderstanding allows for the “assumption” of expectations to lead to a soured relationship. If you “Know Your Mind” then you have a higher probability of success in the endeavor, whether it be a relationship, a project or initiative, a career change or interview; whatever.

I once worked for a person who could never clearly articulate what their desired expectation was of the team. The team was constantly frustrated. In addition, we struggled with articulating the vague expectations with our reports, direct and indirect. It became a case of chasing a moving target and a good deal of non-value-add activity. In time, we were fortunate the individual moved on to other opportunities with another organization.

Some think being too specific is disrespectful. I would argue that being specific shows a high degree of respect, as it takes the burden of guessing or assuming off the other party. Boundaries are clearly set if agreed to, laying the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement.

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4. Articulate Your Intentions

As human beings, we often only get part of the story. In trying to understand and make sense of the parts we do not see, we form a map, or fill in the gaps so to speak, so what we do know seems to make sense. Again, this takes us back to assumptions, which are inherently bad and lead us in directions that are not typically productive.

Intentions and expectations are not usually synonymous. If you think of it in terms of career, you can say that your expectation is to complete several different key roles within your organization. Your intention might then be to prepare yourself for an executive role in the future. From a project perspective, your expectations may be for the project team to scrum on a specified measure of frequency and hold one another accountable on target dates for deliverables. Your intention then might be to bring the project in ahead of time and under budget. In a relationship, your expectation would be to have open and honest communication on a constant basis. Your intention could be a desired life-long relationship.

If others know the intentions associated with the expectations, it adds context and clarity to the expectations. When context and clarity is achieved regarding intentions, others are motivated to focus on the expectations. Baron Von Steuben, the famed “drillmaster of Valley Forge” learned this quickly as he worked to teach the Continental Army military discipline through drill. His experience was that when European troops were ordered to do something, they just went ahead and did it. The Americans, on the other hand, when told to do something blatantly refused until he explained to them why it had to be done. Drill was the expectation. Understanding why drill was important for facing a well-seasoned and battle hardened British regular army was an explanation of the intention for drill.

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5. Check for Understanding

Robert McCloskey is famously attributed to having said, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” This, unfortunately, is how many act regarding expectations. To check for understanding is a critical aspect of communication. If you are communicating expectations, it would then seem wise to check to be sure the expectations you just conveyed are understood as you intended.

Understanding of expectations, or the lack thereof, is a problem. In problem solving we identify gaps and deploy countermeasures to close the gaps identified. To check for understanding is no different. I was once faced with a challenging situation that put the focus of nearly the entire global enterprise on the chair I occupied at that time. The situation was created by no one’s actions or fault. It was the result of an environmental issue that had global impact to multiple industries. When it occurred and the impact to the enterprise was clear, I sat down with my boss, and we discussed the expectations for getting out of the situation the organization found itself in. In this critical discussion, there was a good deal of checking for understanding so that there was no misunderstanding by other of us as to what the expectations were and intended to return the organization back to a normal state.

Not checking for understanding could have been career debilitating for both my boss and me. Because we were both crystal clear on what the expectations were there was little time wasted on “figuring things out.” I was able to articulate to my team what needed to be done, why and when. In the end, we were able to resolve the issue. The team was recognized with very nice awards for their efforts. It was a difficult time. But we were able to push through it because the expectations were crystal clear and understood by everyone.

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6. Expectations Go Both Ways

Be advised. Whenever you are expressing expectations, it is reasonable to expect the party to whom you are communicating those expectations have expectations of their own. I like to say that every conversation is a negotiation. Make sure you understand the expectations of the other party. You may have to adjust your own to accommodate the expectations from across the table – or the living room. Expectations should never be “my way or the highway.” They should be discussed, understood and mutually agreed upon.

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When thoughtfully employed, these 6 elements of setting clear expectations will enable marvelous things to happen, not the least of which is a significant reduction in frustration and wasted time. Understand that learning these key elements is not a destination on a map. It is not a fixed point in time. It is a journey that you commit yourself to. By so doing, you allow yourself the privilege of continually learning how to improve on using these key elements and practicing their implementation.