Steps Leaders Can Take to Set Clear Expectations

If we really want to have a shot at capturing the profitability that’s killed by confusion in our organizations by providing our teams with the kind of clear expectations they desperately need to produce great results, it will require a very focused effort! We absolutely must become experts in providing our team as a whole and each individual who’s part of our team with extreme clarity as to the results we need from them as well as the behaviors we expect from them in order to achieve those results. In doing that though, I’ve seen leaders often shy away from setting the bar too high. Their concern in those cases seems to be that if expectations are set too high, people will shy away…

As we’ve worked through these profitability killers, I’ve referenced several lessons that I learned in the 15 or so years I was directly involved in a very successful behavior-based safety process. At that risk of beating that horse to death, I’ll share another here… This time though, the lesson came from two of my mentors in that process rather than from the science the process was based on. 

The first piece of this particular lesson came in May 1999 during my initial training to perform behavior-based observations on my coworkers throughout the facility. Most of that two-day training was given by the gentleman responsible for overseeing the initiative at our location but one segment was done by the then maintenance supervisor, Terry Ward. Terry’s piece was geared at detailing how our behaviors are always determined by the consequences that come from them but learning to recognize certain things that trigger those behaviors served as an effective way to predict them in advance. I certainly can’t go into all that he shared in the 90 minute lesson here but one thing he always emphasized was a core tenant he had learned in his time at the United States Military Academy (West Point): the importance of choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, and how that always produced better results over the long haul.

Here’s where you’re probably wondering how that ties to eliminating confusion by setting clear expectations… By itself, Terry’s story made a solid case for how choosing a behavior that was easier, but also riskier, in the moment would inevitably result in an injury when it was repeated over time. He went on to explain how taking the extra step to reduce the risk may require some additional effort right away but would pay huge dividends long term by eliminating the potential for injury.

The second part of this lesson ties back to something I learned from an old chap from across the pond. Dave Stanley was one of the folks charged with implementing the behavior-based safety initiative throughout the company in 1998 and was the last remaining from the group by the time I got to know him in 2003 or so. At that point, Dave held global responsibility within our company. While his home was in South Wales (UK), he traveled all over the world providing training at each of the 75+ facilities the organization had at the time. During his first visit to Harrisonburg, he explained that the difficulty of a task and the compensation involved RARELY served as the primary reason someone would choose not to perform it. Dave went on to share that the biggest reason for avoiding any task was not seeing value in performing it. He challenged us to consider all those we knew who risked their lives in the military or as first responders for very little pay, or even no pay at all in some cases. As it related to safety, his message was that providing clarity as to how specific behaviors would eliminate injuries and why that mattered would be critical if we wanted to build and maintain a success process.

Tying that with Terry’s “harder right over the easier wrong” is where we, as leaders, come into the picture to help our teams produce great results by providing them with extremely clear - and high - expectations. As I shared from Tony Jeary before, “it’s hard to sell mediocrity” so why even bother? We absolutely should be challenging our teams to exceed expectations on a daily basis but we also have to make sure we’re giving them the clarity they need to understand exactly what that looks like, how they can achieve it, and why it matters - to them individually and to the organization as a whole. Doing this can be difficult so let’s look at a few steps we can take to simplify it…

Removing All Doubt… 

As we looked at all the profitability that’s killed through poor communication, I suggested that breaking the golden rule just may be an approach that makes a positive impact. If you’re not tracking with me on exactly how that would help, I’d suggest you revisit that idea... Assuming it’s still relatively fresh in your mind though, let’s push forward with a few specific things we can to set extremely clear (and high) expectations to produce the results our organizations need to thrive. 

In looking for resources that offered insight on this to support the hands-on experiences I’ve had personally, I found an article called Cultivating a Culture of Clear Expectations and Accountability that Equips and Empowers from, a peer group for credit unions, that shared this:

Leaders are ultimately responsible for setting expectations, effectively communicating those expectations, and developing accountability standards. Not only are leaders responsible for setting clear expectations, but those expectations must be realistic. Metaphorically speaking, unrealistic expectations are equivalent to running on a hamster’s wheel, going nowhere fast. This parallel is valid for workplaces, where employees with no expectations and accountability are completing repetitive and unfulfilling tasks that produce zero to minimal growth. This type of behavior leads to disengagement and is toxic to any organization.

The next profitability killer we’ll be addressing is accountability so I’ll skip that for now… But let’s look specifically at “setting expectations and effectively communicating those expectations” and the piece emphasizing that “those expectations must be realistic.” Far too often, I’ve seen folks in leadership roles be reluctant to communicate expectations that could be perceived by their teams as too high out of concern of seeming unrealistic. I suppose I can understand that but I’ll challenge you not to write something off as unachievable simply because the bar appears to be set high!

If we can effectively break the golden rule with each individual on our teams and provide them with the style of communication THEY need to clearly understand our expectations, for the action we need them to take as well as the results we need them to achieve, we should have a solid foundation in place. When it comes to setting expectations that are high but still realistic, I’m convinced it comes down to tying them to a purpose that tugs at the heart strings of each member of our team. As with improving employee engagement, having a purpose that means something to each of us AND makes an impact that’s bigger than any one of us can earn a level of effort that’s rarely given in an attempt to hit some moderate goal. I’ll say it once more for emphasis, people don’t shy away from work because it’s hard or because the pay is too low; they shy away from things that don’t have purpose!

I truly believe that leaders who fail to set high expectations and communicate them clearly to their teams are indeed creating a culture that can be toxic to the organization. But when we do those two simple (but not always easy) things, we remove all doubt about WHAT is expected and WHY it matters. Then we just need to maintain those expectations consistently and across the board so before moving on to accountability, let’s tie all this together by addressing that need for consistency…

Early, Often, and Everywhere In Between!

Here’s what I can promise you; we can indeed eliminate the cost of confusion and avoid leaving a ton of profit on the table if we’re willing to provide the kind of clear expectations that produce results! I’m certainly not suggesting that this is easy but by following a few simple steps, we can remove much of the doubt that so often bogs our team members down… But take note, this is absolutely not something we can do once and hope to move on with our lives. As leaders, the key to keeping this profitability killer at bay is making sure we provide the extremely clear expectations that we’ve been looking at here EARLY, OFTEN, and EVERYWHERE in between!

In Building Buy-In Around a Clear Mission & Vision, a lesson Cindy and I originally developed for our Executive Leadership Elite Think Tank but now provide frequently as a keynote session for various organizations, we share something we learned from John Maxwell in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership as he describes The Law of the Picture. John says that “the temptation for any leader is to merely communicate about the vision.” I’m convinced this applies at least as much to expectations because those are usually less flashy than a leader’s vision. He goes on to warn of the challenge that comes with this. He explained that “vision has a tendency to leak.” And quite frankly, high expectations will leak too if we only talk about them occasionally.

One more thing I learned from all those years in behavior-based safety was that we all need boundaries. Our behaviors are driven by the consequences we’ve come to expect from those behaviors, and those consequences are tied directly to whether or not we know exactly what’s expected of us and whether or not we’ll be held accountable for not performing within those expectations. To be sure our team members have a clear understanding of what we expect, as well as how they can exceed those expectations on a regular basis, we need to communicate those expectations with them in the language they can best receive, be sure to tie them to a purpose that our team members buy into, then do it over and over and over again!

Make no mistake though, just talking about it will never be enough… We better be sure to provide them with an example to follow. And we also need to commit to holding folks accountable when they miss the mark or will fall prey to yet another profitability killer - so that’s exactly what we’ll work through next!