How to Set Expectations That Set Your Team Up for Success


With the new year kicked off, it’s fascinating to watch the stream of posts on social media about how to better plan for the year and the best techniques for doing a year-end review. Listening to the debate over setting intentions, goals or a theme for the year. While others don’t want to set intentions at all. When it comes to setting goals at work, most teams fall into one of two buckets. Bucket A, there are no goals and work is paced from project to project or Bucket B, there are goals but it’s a cumbersome process that takes months.

Bucket A- Goals? What Goals?
Not setting goals appeals to the part of us that wants to jump in and just do good work because honestly, there’s always more work to do. Clearly defined and measurable goals enable teams to know how their success will be measured, helps them gauge their progress, and shows them how their work supports the company mission. Without goals, teams never know what success is or if they are doing the right work at the right time. This lack of clarity can become a breeding ground for self-doubt, mistrust, and secrecy.

Bucket B- A Hierarchy of Goals
Ideally, your company has a set vision, mission and a strategic plan in place with key metrics to measure success. A leadership team will look at the market, the needs of customers, and the capability of the team to craft objectives for the year. Everyone then aligns their goals with those objectives. Ideally, each person can see exactly how their work supports the company mission. The downside of hierarchical or nested goals is the larger the company the more complicated setting goals can become and the longer the process takes.

We set intentions and goals each year because we want to progress in our careers and lives, we want to do good work, and conquer challenges. It doesn’t matter which bucket your team is in if you are new to management, or an experienced leader there is more to setting expectations than we think.

This is part one in a series on setting expectations with success. Over this series, we’ll explore new ways to look at goals and expectations, learn practical advice for setting goals, a view into some of the current popular performance management structures, and how to increase accountability for success.

Part 1- Understanding Expectations

To set better expectations and goals with success, leaders need to better understand what motivates their team. Setting the right goal is part science and part art. To get started, let's look at what motivates us to do work and take a deeper look at expectations.

There are two common approaches to motivation: the carrot and the stick. There is the carrot, providing a reward to someone for doing more of the desired behavior and the stick, punishing people for doing less of a behavior. You might recognize this classic carrot and stick approach that is used with kids. If a child finishes their chores they get to go play with their friends and if they don’t they have to stay home and can’t have a cookie. Sound familiar? At work, the carrot is often a financial/status incentive, personal recognition, or the promise of the opportunity to work on cooler projects. We believe we do things because we are motivated and rewarded for doing it. If that’s true, then why doesn’t our team accomplish all their goals? To learn why let's look at the science of motivation and human needs.

Beyond the Carrot & Stick

Dan Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates US, drew on 50 years of behavioral science to overturn conventional wisdom about human motivation. In the book, he explores why reward and punishment don’t work as motivation. He proposes that it’s more important to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Let’s look at each and how it applies to expectations.

  • Autonomy, the need to be self-directed. Do your team member’s have autonomy in their work? Leaders need to provide clarity of what the outcome is and not be the stereotypical micro manager that tells their teams how to do their work.
  • Mastery, the itch to keep improving at something that’s important to us. There is a pride that comes with mastery, feeling capable, and being known for a skill. Assigning projects that allow your team to build mastery of the skills they need to be promoted or move onto to their next challenge is exactly what career development is.
  • Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond ourselves. Few people join a company whose product/service, culture and mission don’t somehow align with who they are. By understanding the purpose of each team member, you can tap into their natural motivation and why they do what they do.

We Do What We Can to Get Our Needs Met

To survive we need very little- food, water, shelter, and oxygen. To thrive we need a lot more. Once basic needs are met and bills are paid, employees today have the luxury to look for work that is interesting. With this shift, it’s no longer the role of a manager to just manage work. Great managers must become leaders that strive to bring out the genius in their team and meet their needs for growth and contribution. The best list that captures this new set of needs is from Tony Robbins. Let’s look at each and how it applies to expectations.

  • Certainty, assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure. Are your team's goals clear? Have you agreed on how and when updates and changes will be discussed? Does your team know how the goal supports the company? Do they know how and what they could be rewarded?
  • Uncertainty/Variety, the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli. Are the goals set clear enough to provide certainty of what’s expected but leave the how up to them?
  • Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed. Through this work, does your team know how they are contributing to the bigger mission of your group and company? How can you encourage them and highlight their contributions?
  • Connection/Love, a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something. In their polls, Gallup asks "Do you have a best friend at work?” 30 percent of respondents who reported having a best friend at work were seven times more likely to be engaged at their jobs than the respondents who didn’t. Another example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%). As managers we can create opportunities for our teams to get to know each other, and for them to work on cross-company teams, or even be mentored by others outside of their group.
  • Growth, expansion of capacity, capability or understanding. Does this work help them grow the skills that are important to them? Will they have new challenges that bring out the best in them?
  • Contribution, a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others. Does this work line up with the contribution they want to have on the world? If someone likes being a teacher, does it give them an opportunity to teach? If they like being the go-to person or expert are you giving them that opportunity?

For employees to be engaged in their work and excited about their goals, they need all 6 of these needs met. When these needs aren’t met, dysfunctional behavior and dis-engagement creep in. Great leaders take time to understand the needs that are most important to their team, partnering with them to craft projects and goals that are more fulfilling.

Stop Expecting and Start Agreeing

“I expect you to be home by dinner time,” or how about the silent expectation; “We really need to get this presentation by Monday.” We’d much rather hear a request like, “Are you able to finish this presentation by Monday?” Expectations, spoken or silent, don’t set teams up for success.

Everyone has expectations, of themselves and others. Expectations are beliefs and judgments about how things should be done and how people should act. They are personal, based on your unique experiences and beliefs of the world. The problem, expectations aren’t often not shared and include a list of unrealistic assumptions. These unmet assumptions lead to disappointment, for you and your team. This gets exacerbated by unclear goals and unfulfilled expectations for raises and promotions which lead to a mutual lack of trust.

It’s time to break the cycle. Instead of setting expectations and goals think about setting agreements. Agreements, by their nature, are collaborative and inclusive with natural accountability and responsibility built in. By setting agreements, leaders have the responsibility to clearly articulate what the work is, outcomes expected and how the employee needs to behave to get it done. In return, managers need to agree to a set of priorities, requests for support and how updates would be communicated. Agreements become a win-win as both the manager and employee must be bought in with a clear understanding of expectations and can feel ownership for their work.

In Part 2 of this series learn 8 Tips for Setting Expectations and Part 3 learn 8 Questions to Ask Partners for Success.


    About the Author

    Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

    Kim-ElishaLead Smarter