Are You Holding Your Employees Back? The Importance of Setting Clear Expectations in the Workplace

Updated: Feb 10

A 2018 Harvard Business Review reported that 90% of employees would take less money to do work where they found meaning and a sense of purpose. So, if the majority of the population actually wants to do a good job at work, why is engagement so low and why do individuals underperform? Setting clear expectations may be the greatest factor in increasing job satisfaction, happiness, employee retention, improved judgement & decision-making. While setting expectations may seem obvious, perhaps even rudimentary to leaders, it is inconsistent at best in corporate America and lowering the bar for employee performance.


Top Reasons Leaders do not Set Clear Expectations:

  • Lack of time

  • Fear of setting the wrong expectations

  • The opinion of: we are all adults, and we should know what’s expected of us

  • Concern that the expectations may change



The Impact of Unclear Expectations

When expectations are not set, a few things can happen that trigger a domino effect leading to decreased productivity and disengagement. First, employees begin to set their own standards, forming processes and goals as they go; this eventually creates silos, information hoarders, and inefficient systems of doing work. Leaders may also acknowledge poor work by reprimanding an employee in some way and unfortunately, when the expectation was not clear to begin with, this tactic generally creates defensiveness. Another common misstep is when leaders share information as part of a general dialogue with teams, expecting them to perform to undefined and unclear work, leaving employees to fend for themselves.


Employees eventually begin to resent their work and leadership team as they continue to feel like they are hitting a wall. Unclear expectations are akin to a football team entering game day without any prior practice: while all the players may be highly qualified and built for the job, they will not get very far without pre-planned plays or an understanding of each person’s role on the team and how they should interact with them for maximum efficiency. When a leader fails to create clear plays for their team, employees become defeated. A common protection tactic in a work environment is reversion to negativity through storytelling: the individual finds solace in others with similar challenges, they share their war stories, and then grow into pockets of internal influencers that can dramatically bring down productivity and engagement for the entire team.


So how exactly do leaders effectively set clear expectations?

Clear expectations set the tone for a team and should be the standard of work for all employees. When done well, expectations create personal accountability, fairness & objectivity from leadership, and build engagement while driving high performance. Once the bar is set, the tendency will not be to drop below but to exceed the standard; individuals will want to do better and add more meaning to what they already know works.

Let’s look at a step-by-step approach:

  1. Identify the big picture: what is the ultimate goal that you want to achieve?

  2. Assess roadblocks and challenges to your goal: what is currently getting in the way and what could get in the way down the road?

  3. Identify specific behaviors required to achieve the goal: what behaviors would employees need to demonstrate on a daily basis to be effective and what behaviors may get in the way

  4. Write down specific behavioral expectations that would be applicable to everyone on your team (different teams within a company will have different expectations based on their work)

  5. Review the expectations with your team and work-through them together: the goal will be to achieve agreement and buy-in from your team

  6. Give everyone a copy of the expectations and request that they put them in a place where they will be visible on a daily basis

  7. Hold people accountable to the expectations by plugging the language into daily meetings, coaching sessions, and feedback loops (where you either recognize or redirect an individual based on specific behaviors)

  8. Build the expectations into your new hire onboarding program to set the tone of work on day one


Clear expectations not only maximize performance and create a cohesive work environment, they bring people together and build engagement. Expectation setting is not about micromanagement but quite the opposite, it gives people the opportunity to be their best within a work community. If expectations are unclear, employees spend most of their time trying to figure out how not to get in trouble or let down their boss, however, when that unease is removed, employees can focus on more important work, work that matters and makes them feel good about how they are showing up each day.

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