What Do You Expect?

Posted On: February 2

During the past several months I have delivered numerous workshops and speeches for clients who were all struggling with the same basic issue: Lack of Clear Expectations. Regardless of the size of the company or the industry in which they competed, I’ve noticed a pattern of three critical areas where failure to set clear expectations has had a significant negative impact on the organization.

Unclear Performance Expectations: When the leaders of a company do not set very clear, measurable and specific standards of performance it sets everyone up for a fall. Here is a fundamental leadership maxim: Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity!

If employees do not fully understand exactly what they are supposed to be doing, it is impossible to hold them accountable for poor performance. So the key to success here is ensuring that the expectations for performance are measurable – quantifiable – specific – binary. Why is this so important? Because highly unambiguous expectations allow you to be rigorous in holding people fully accountable, without being ruthless. Binary goals are either achieved or they are not; there is no in-between, no opinion, and no argument. This is so vital because it allows you to remove emotions from the situation by saying to an employee, “You are OK – but your performance on this task was not.” Clear performance expectations lead to better results, higher levels of accountability and a more focused and engaged workforce.

Unclear Leadership Expectations: Another area that causes dysfunction in an organization is when the employees do not clearly know what to expect from their leaders. If the leader is going to take the time to set out specific expectations for the employee’s performance, it is only right and fair that they should let the employees know exactly what to expect from them as well. This means sharing your leadership values, your vision for your team, how you will reward people when they exceed expectations, why you would terminate someone – so that everyone who works with you knows clearly where they stand and what they can expect from you as their leader. By the way, VERY few leaders do this – they just assume that their people know and understand these points. I can tell you from experience… they do not!

Unclear Customer Expectations: The last, and most costly, area where lack of clear expectations can cause serious trouble in a company is when you fail to set extremely clear expectations for what you will deliver to your customer. I am constantly amazed by the number of businesses who upset and literally chase-off customers because they don’t specifically communicate what the customer should expect. They say, “We’ll get back to you right away,” which to the customer might means in 20 minutes or less – but to the business it means within 2 hours. So when they call back an hour and a half later – the company thinks they are doing a great job (they beat their normal response time by 30 minutes!!) and the customer is seriously unhappy because they feel that the call was an hour and ten minutes late! This happens over and over again in a thousand tiny ways that all serve to drive customers away from your business. The goal is Under-Promise and Over-Deliver (UPOD) NOT Over-Promise and Under-Deliver (OPUD).

If you are a leader in your organization, regardless of what level you lead at, it is essential that you take a moment to make sure that you have done a superb job in establishing and communication very clear and specific expectations in all three of these critical areas.

Hope you found that helpful – I look forward to your comments – John

John Spence is the author of “Awesomely Simple – Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas into Action.” He is an award-wining professional speaker and corporate trainer, and has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Business Thought Leaders in America and also as one of the most admired Small Business Experts in the nation.

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  1. Hi John,

    I use the term “mixed messages” for what you describe here.

    Over the years I have observed people whose actions and words do not align, and the impact on the staff member is confusion and as you have described poor performance and mediocrity

    Great article and enjoy your Blog.

    1. Thanks for the comment Stephen – spot on! To me that describes a leader with a clear lack of integrity — their words are not integrated with their actions – leads to total lack of trust. Thanks for reading my blog and taking a moment to add to the discussion!

  2. John-

    All great points. The internal side is where most of the attention is paid day-to-day, since it focuses on what the business does or produces. In many ways, the client side is the most difficult. There’s a tendency to “assume” that we know what is most important to clients and therefore not to proactively clarify and confirm. Even when there is an awareness of the need, many client-facing employees haven’t been taught effective skills for carrying this out.

    As always, thanks for sharing important ideas worthy of action.

  3. Hi John,
    Another very relevant article for all business owners and managers to take note of and act accordingly.
    If all leaders focussed only on these three points, and delegated everything else, most businesses would be in a far better place.
    I have uploaded a link to your article at http://business-improvement.rhodan.com.au to increase the audience for this great reminder of what is impoetant for business success.

  4. John,

    It’s a great reminder to know how efficiently employees work when a clear goal is set. It leaves no room for lost time completing meaningless tasks! Sometimes as managers, it is too easy to get lost in the day to day, to remember to lead in the simplest ways. The culture must be clearly defined.

    Thanks again and again for your incite and wisdom. Striving for business excellence!

  5. John,

    As always your post is perfect timing, I’ll be using this material today in a presentation. You mention Leadership Vision and you talk about this all the time. I find how the Vision is shared shows the personal development of the leader. Vision is not a philosophy lesson on what the company does what it does; vision is a clear concise picture of expectations and so many leaders just do not get this right. It creates the mediocrity you mention and runs off customers and top quality employee candidates! People want to work with leaders they respect. And, that respect is earned not automatic. Employees do not respect leaders who give “missed messages” as Stephen spoke about. Thanks always for another fabulous post.

  6. I was just recently introduced to your blog; I find it a great reinforcement to what we try to convey to our developing leaders. I practice the mantra that “assumption is the mother of misunderstandings.”

    The question that time and again comes up is how clear does clear needs to be? Being that we are all individuals, we all come from different backgrounds, cultures, and our perceptions are relatively unique. with that in mind, one would press for clarity in conveying the message and yet when informed that they fell short of the expectations, the claim may be it wasn’t as clear as I thought or “so that’s what you meant.”

    At some point, one would have to assess if the right person is on the team in order to move forward. Your thoughts?

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