How to Set Expectations and Get the Performance You Want From Your Team

Effective leadership begins with conveying crystal-clear goals.

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By Brenda Neckvatal

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There is one challenge I see rising and experienced entrepreneurs alike consistently face, and that is how to get underachieving employees to perform better to avoid going through the difficult termination process. In most cases, I've found that the root of the situation is lack of clear performance expectations. A 2015 Gallup poll of 2.2 million employees in 550 organizations bears that impression out: it revealed that only half of surveyed staff members understood their job responsibilities fully.

The ability to set and communicate expectations is important for any leader, because it sets the stage for a more productive and less ambiguous work environment. Effectively establishing these not only helps build trust with employees, it also makes them feel valued — because the simple fact is that they usually want to be led… not let loose to produce work and merely hope that it's satisfactory.

Results vary wildly when expectations are not clearly set; one employee may feel underpaid from having to replicate work or complete tasks more than once because the desired end result wasn't clearly defined, others may feel overworked and behind, or underutilized and unappreciated. In addition, your needs as a leader aren't being met, because staff members aren't meeting expectations. Not a good environment to foster, even if it was done so unintentionally.

Here's how you can start to reverse the trend and move forward.

Related: Great Leaders Do More Than Manage Expectations, They Align Them

Set expectations early and often

Being clear on what an end result should look like, as well as its purpose (revenue, new clients or other tangible results) is what a team needs to flourish. It also establishes trust and transparency between that team and its manager, because the former has been infused with the confidence that they will step up to the task.

If follows, then, that conveying expectations needs to be among a manager's first (and most consistent) tasks, and this can be done through a wide variety of channels. Basics like company dress code, work hours and other broad strokes professional behavior can be communicated via employee handbooks or otherwise readily accessible methods. (Just remember that these documents should be updated at least annually to align with company changes.) For more detailed matters, frequent check-ins and project progress reviews with your team are effective ways of keeping expectations in place.

Too many entrepreneurs have the desire to give instructions to a team and then turn them loose without further guidance or support. Unfortunately, that rarely pans out. Continuously reinforcing goals over time simply keeps the ball in play. You're the team captain, after all, and when players get close to going out of bounds or start fouling in the game, you need to step in and make sure they understand the rules of engagement and realign their actions. Such clarity can also, in time, free you from intensive supervision, because the more staff members understand the rules, as well as your comfort zone and what you want delivered, there will build a mutual level of confidence, and a blueprint with which they can operate autonomously.

Related: 3 Steps to Help Employees Understand Your Objectives and Expectations

What gets measured, improves

Effective leaders should be establishing Key Performance Indicators (KIPs) for employees that will move the company forward. When I worked for an international corporation, we realized that client deliverables (such as handbooks and job descriptions) did not move the business forward. However, when we focused on annual client retention as a KPI, our business grew. Retention became both the focus and the new expectation, as we didn't have to work as hard at bringing in new clients through the year to combat attrition. Our growth was supported by measured performance.

If you don't tell them, how will they know?

Have you ever made a mistake and nobody told you? Next thing you know, you're in the middle of a storm trying to figure out what went wrong. That happens to employees with astonishing frequency. If nobody is willing to tell someone that they aren't meeting an expectation or have made a mistake, it sets the stage for a lot of drama and frustration. So, if a staff member has made a mistake, tell them, but remember to then provide guidance to get things back on track. Resetting expectation after such a clear conversation is completed is actually simple, and more often than not, you won't have to repeat yourself unnecessarily further down the road.

Related: Employees Only Meet Expectations When They Know What's Expected

Lastly, setting expectations doesn't have to be a complicated or arduous process. Keep it simple, and never assume expectations are mutually understood — ask if they understand what you're looking for and allow them the opportunity to ask questions. Your job as a leader, after all, is to help eliminate the obstacles that get in their way of their achievements.

Brenda Neckvatal

President and HR Professional

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