6 Tips on Setting Expectations for Employees

By Brian O'Connell December 8, 2020
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6 Tips on Setting Expectations for Employees

​Companies that are allowing their workforces to work remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues need to ensure that they can effectively manage employee engagement. One way to reduce workers' stress and keep them connected is to establish more-transparent and engaging expectations.

"Setting expectations for your employees is vitally important," said Luanne Tierney, chief marketing officer at Betterworks, a workplace empowerment and performance company located in Redwood City, Calif. "Without set expectations, employees may be left to wonder where their impact lies and therefore fall behind."

When the manager and employee agree on clearly defined expectations, there is less confusion, more empowerment in their positions and a road map for the employee to succeed, Tierney noted.

A Path for Managers to Set Expectations

If you're a manager, understand that your staffers actually want you to set expectations. That process starts with mastering a few key steps that should lead to better results.

1. Emphasize objectives.

Clearly defined objectives and key results are great tools for setting clear employee expectations.

"By setting quarterly objectives or goals with your employees and then writing actionable key results that will allow the employee to achieve those objectives, there is a clear understanding of what to do to move forward," Tierney said. "This eliminates the need for micromanagement and allows the employee to have autonomy over their own responsibilities."

It's not enough to simply define an objective. Decide on measurable key results so that employees have mileposts to guide them to the goal.

"This is why [objectives] work so well: The steps to achieve are well-defined. Review your objectives each quarter, and make notes on what worked and what didn't. By having these open conversations, you can set even better objectives for the next quarter," Tierney explained.

2. Set expectations early.

Jeff Smith, director of the Best-Self Academy at 15Five, a software company in San Francisco that helps firms manage remote workers, sets expectations with employees from their first day on the job.

15Five mandates a meeting between new hires and managers called the Best-Self Kick-Off as part of its employee onboarding process. The discussion centers on expectations, workplace culture, goal setting and results planning. The job description plays a starring role in the meeting.

"Having an accurate job description can act as the foundation for a great relationship between a manager and a direct report," Smith said. "Many job descriptions list dozens of responsibilities and required skills instead of focusing on what the role will actually entail.

"At 15Five, once someone joins the company, their job description includes actionable details around what's expected during their first 30, 60, 90 and 365 days. Another simple technique is describing a typical week or month in the role. Job descriptions should always include the outcomes that someone is responsible for, why the outcomes are important to your company and your company's values."

When prospective employees can see how their values align with the company, they'll feel more supported and connected even before working for a new employer.

"Values also help employees have a clear understanding of what they should be focusing on and how it contributes to the company's overall strategy—helping open the door for more transparent communication and motivation for success," Smith said.

3. Make employees accountable.

While managers need to set realistic goals, team leaders also should ensure that staffers recognize they are accountable for those goals.

"Do this by following up, establishing shared goals and setting milestones to allow the team to gauge progress," said Tammy Perkins, chief people officer at PMI Worldwide in Seattle. "By following up, managers ensure that a team recognizes that they are accountable for the deliverable.

"Remember, company leaders position their team for success by making priorities clear at every stage," she added. "Make that process easier by keeping a list of critical goals, especially during the pandemic, when workplaces are in an environment of significant change."

4. Give meaningful feedback.

Keep in mind that employees internalize and implement management feedback when it's relevant. "Consequently, develop a key message supported by examples," Perkins said.

One way to do that is with storytelling. "It's powerful when leaders share real stories about themselves and employees," Perkins added. "The more specific, personal and memorable the story, the better. Storytelling is a great way to create the opportunity to learn."

5. Leverage motivation.

"Put yourself in your employees' shoes, and think what would motivate them," said Chris Brenchley, chief executive officer at Surehand, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that connects skilled professionals with industrial employers. "Is it a prospect of better pay, promotion, validation? Find out what's in it for them."

To gain insight into what motivates employees, Brenchley advises, managers could invite workers into their office for an informal chat. "Ask them where they want to be two or three years from now," he said. "This will give you clear insight about what they're planning and how the goals you set will be able to take them where they want to go."

6. Make it measurable.

"If you set a vague goal, you'll get vague results," Brenchley said. "Therefore, the goal should be measurable.

"This also means setting a deadline so the employee knows exactly what is expected of them and when," he added. "One tip that managers can leverage is to use goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide

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