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7 min read

Setting employee expectations: A guide for managers

Set the right employee expectations: A manager’s guide
From Team '23

Tempo Team

Employee engagement is on the decline, and the impact is stark. Disengaged workers affect every aspect of business operations, causing organizations to lose more than $500 billion due to poor productivity, low worker morale, and decreased employee retention rates.

So, why is engagement falling? And what can you do to mitigate the effects of this trend on your project team?

According to a recent Gallup study, a primary cause driving lower engagement rates is the lack of clear employee expectations. Even when employers set expectations, they are often poorly defined or communicated. Another Gallup survey found that less than half of employees feel they clearly understand workplace expectations. 

Managers set their colleagues up for success when they tell new hires and longtime team members what they expect. Transparency motivates a team to work harder and improves their overall job satisfaction.

You’ll need a keen balance of leadership and management skills to establish productive expectations for coworkers. It takes practice, but once you master the process, you’ll forge a motivated team with a healthy work-life balance and a positive company culture that benefits everyone.  

What are employee expectations?

Employee expectations include any requirement an organization or manager sets for its workers, sometimes defined as a goal or target. Whether expectations are internal or external, leadership can base these demands on the following factors:

  • Industry expectations

  • Company reputation

  • Client or vendor relationships

  • Product or service knowledge

  • Corporate policies

  • Performance

Some expectations are formally defined within the employee handbook or job description. Others are shared informally during team meetings and one-on-one discussions between managers and their direct reports. 

Employers’ expectations may address employee interactions, specific tasks, and outcomes or results.  

Categories of expectations

Companies ask their employees to meet expectations within three distinct categories. 

Organizational expectations

Businesses anticipate employees’ activities will contribute to short-term goals defined in the organization’s mission statement or long-term targets outlined by its vision. Whenever managers establish expectations for their staff, they should consider the company’s values, mission, and vision. 

Standard expectations

Standard expectations impact every employee, ensuring coworkers follow corporate policies that govern performance, ethics, and behavior. Generally, these expectations apply universally, but some may be adjusted depending on

  • Departmental affiliation

  • Job profile

  • Employee experience

  • Other contributing factors

Interpretation and enforcement of standard expectations tend to be strict unless the company and employee agree to accommodations before starting work.

Specific expectations

These expectations are unique to each employee’s role and responsibilities. Management will establish them based on 

  • Company or departmental strategy

  • Performance targets

  • Customer demands

  • Seasonal variations

  • Individual considerations

To effectively set these expectations, you must provide the details of the what and the when while the employees fill in the blanks of how they will accomplish the goal. Otherwise, you’re micromanaging, negatively affecting the work environment.

7 tips to set clear expectations in your team

Leadership is responsible for ensuring team members have feasible expectations and goals. The following suggestions will help you challenge your employees without asking too much: 

1. Start immediately

A new employee’s job description lists initial expectations, establishing work requirements before hiring. Once they start, you can use the company’s onboarding to elaborate on these expectations. Studies have shown performance increases by 11% when new hires complete an effective onboarding program.

2. Establish realistic goals

Impossible expectations don’t challenge employees; they only set a team up to fail. Whether due to resource, time, or skill constraints, unrealistic goals dishearten employees.

Insurmountable demands are a leading cause of work burnout. They also leave team members feeling disrespected – lowering employee engagement in the best-case scenario and causing many to quit at worst.

When setting expectations, consider whether your team has the resources required to succeed, including work hours. If your request is reasonable, they can accomplish the goal without damaging their mental health and work-life balance.

3. Follow the SMART framework

You’ve probably heard of the SMART goal acronym:

  • Specific: Precisely define what you want the employee to achieve.

  • Measurable: Establish metrics that allow you and the employee to gauge success.

  • Achievable: The expectation is possible with available resources and skill sets.

  • Relevant: The goal contributes to the company’s mission and vision.

  • Time-bound: The requirement must be completed within a specific timeframe.

SMART goals demonstrate a capacity to drive key organizational, team, and individual results. 

Ensure your expectations meet the SMART criteria before communicating them to staff members. Otherwise, you could leave employees uncertain about your aims, damaging their motivation, productivity, and job satisfaction.

4. Apply the RIO model 

The RIO model is a communication tool to help managers secure buy-in and expectation alignment from team members. This model asks you to define three aspects when communicating an expectation:

  • Reason: Establishing the purpose of an expectation gets everyone on the same page. It sets the baseline for the request, allowing employees to understand the nuances of the requirements.

  • Impacts: Outline the positive effects of meeting expectations and how they tie into the company’s big picture to motivate employees to succeed.

  • Outcome: Define success in tangible terms to establish clear and agreed-upon goalposts and remove confusion. Outcomes may include benefits for the client (e.g., delivering the project under budget), team members (e.g., streamlined workflows), or the organization (e.g., improved quarterly earnings).  

5. Link expectations to clear metrics

Connect employee expectations to success benchmarks to ensure everyone is on target. Clear metrics tell staff when they’re on track to meet management’s expectations, mitigating uncertainty. If they’re at risk of missing an objective, they have time to seek help. 

For most goals, tie success to numbers or dates. For others, link your expectations to team or company goals. If your expectations don’t fit into either category, you should rethink your requirements. 

6. Conduct routine performance reviews 

Coworkers need more than an annual performance review to meet individual expectations. They require regular feedback, beginning with a weekly one-on-one. Adjust the frequency based on the employee’s needs and progress. 

By discussing status, potential roadblocks, and other issues, you and your direct reports will remain aligned on the objective and its progress. These meetings are essential for managing expectations, reinforcing positive behaviors, and creating mentorship opportunities to help employees succeed.  

7. Collaborate

Goal setting is ultimately up to you, but teamwork is essential. Staff members have valuable insight into what’s possible within their role, and frontline workers can contribute to the strategy with their client experience in client interaction. 

Soliciting input from your employees while setting expectations encourages their commitment to and accountability while strengthening the company’s work culture. 

How to communicate and manage employee expectations

Setting expectations is one thing. Communicating those goals to your direct reports is another. How you deliver the message influences the staff’s diligence and desire to execute. 

When communicating expectations with an employee, share them in writing. Studies show that writing down and regularly reviewing progress toward a goal makes achievement 42% more likely

Implement the following tactics when you communicate set expectations:

  • Explain the “why” behind the expectation to motivate employees to meet it.

  • Leverage the SMART framework to clarify the goal’s specifics.

  • Let team members ask questions to ensure alignment.

  • Request constructive feedback to prevent execution from overwhelming the team.

  • Document expectations in a central location, such as a project management tool, for reference and accountability.

Clear employee expectations are the key to success

Managers who set clear expectations promote a positive employee experience. These expectations guide team members’ day-to-day activities, provide insight into their performance, and create opportunities to celebrate success. 

That success requires visibility regarding individual and team goals. Tempo can increase transparency with our suite of project management tools. Structure PPM helps communicate and align progress across all organizational levels in real time. Tempo Timesheets tracks time and progress so you can identify areas of efficiency and opportunities for improvement. 

No matter the goal, Tempo software solutions will help you manage expectations while avoiding micromanagement.

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