On the Importance of Clear Expectations

If you have read many of my posts, or know me personally, it is likely very clear that I value structure and organization. I think both are very important in producing quality goods and services but, more importantly, they are part of allowing ourselves and those around us to feel successful or accomplished. I am aware that not everyone values or benefits from as much structure as I like to have in my work, but there is one part of structure in a working environment that I believe is important to everyone and, without it, most people will not end up feeling successful no matter what they are accomplishing.

So, what is this vital component and why is it important?

What I’m talking about is clear expectations, or as I like to call them “parameters of success”. Everything we do has expectations associated with it, our own expectations of ourselves and others, and often the expectations of others. Tasks and events as simple as leaving our house for work in the morning are rife with expectations. Expectations about what our clothes should look like (style, colour, level of modesty, quality) depending on what we’re doing that day, expectations about how recently we should have bathed and brushed our teeth or how smoothly the morning should or will go. These are expectations we set ourselves, but they often conflict with expectations of others, especially that modesty piece. In our daily personal lives, the expectations of others will often be expressed in approving or disapproving looks based on our appearance that let us know if we have met, failed to meet, or exceeded that persons expectations. They can also be expressed in conversation, or other interpersonal interactions that reveal whether or not our own expectations of ourselves match those we are interacting with. These non-formal expressions of expectations are an effective social tool for expressing and enforcing accepted norms, and each individual decides whether or not to pay them any heed.

In the work place, expectations are usually more formally expressed. They come in the form of dress codes, attendance policies, signed job descriptions, anti-harassment training, and many more ways. This intentional expression of the expectations allows employees to understand that agreeing to do the work they’ve been offered means they also agree to meet these other standards. In order to be successful in your work, in the eyes of the company, you must also successfully meet the expectations that the company expresses, whether they are directly related to the work you’re doing or not.

I firmly believe that every task or event should also have clear expectations. These expectations certainly don’t have to be as formal as a dress code or job description, but should be more formal than the expectations expressed in social interactions through facial expressions and the like.

When I start a simple project on my own, such as a new batch of the mead I brew, my expectation for myself is that I’ll spend a few hours having fun and will end up sealing the mead into a fermenter at the end. Ultimately, a successful day of brewing requires that I seal the liquid in an airtight container after mixing the ingredients according to my recipe, and that is enough that I feel successful at the end of the day. I’m also aware of my long-term expectations for the project though, that I will end up with mead that is semi-sweet, and has at least 13% abv. In order for my day of brewing to be successful, I need to dedicate enough time and attention to it that it gets started right, but in order for the whole project to be successful, there are different expectations that I won’t know whether I met or not for at least 3 months.

Much like my brewing, my projects at work need to have clear expectations associated with them so that the person working on them knows what success looks like, both in the short and long term. This gives everyone working on that project a clear picture of what they should be working toward today as well as the what they should be working toward 3 months from now and what success looks like when the project is over. Without clear and well-communicated parameters of success:

  • We are unable to gauge how successful we were, making the celebration of successes impossible.
  • We are unclear what the ultimate goal is, making it difficult to prioritize.
  • Each person involved may have expectations they haven’t expressed, and we’re likely to have to trip over those expectations when we don’t meet them.

As a leader, especially in a management role, it is very important to explore the expectations of your team around tasks or projects and come to an agreement of what the expectations are for them. These parameters for success should be clear in the short and long term, and should allow those you are leading to have a clear picture of success. This way everyone knows what to work toward and what to celebrate.

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