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How to Set Clear Expectations for Your Staff


Do you think your team needs more training?  The real problem may be unclear expectations.

Good training can be empowering. You gain insight, flex new muscles, and add tools to your management arsenal. Once you discover the power of good training, it can seem like a cure-all for the problems you see at work.

A project group turns in a bad product? Train them! Staff aren’t following procedure? Train them! Layers of review don’t catch fatal errors in important documents? You guessed it, train them!

Training is a useful tool, but it’s just that – a tool. The apparent need for training can mask a deeper problem – unclear expectations. When employees don’t know what you want, smart people create processes that don’t work. Successful workers make products that aren’t viable. Project teams full of high-flyers implode. The next thing you know, you’re spending your limited time cleaning up a mess and trying to figure out what went wrong.

Let’s be honest. We all think that we give clear instructions with a list of expectations that are both reasonable and actionable. Sadly (or thankfully) our employees can’t read our minds. If you find yourself saying “isn’t it obvious that…” or “they should have known…,” it may be time to try these four simple steps to ensure you’re setting clear expectations:

  1. Plan.  It’s tempting to jump into a new assignment immediately. Before you let your team loose, take time to think about what you want to achieve. If you don’t know what you want, it will be almost impossible for your employees to create it. Be able to explain your business need to your team and connect the project to the agency’s mission. You’ll see strategic and political obstacles before your subordinates do, so identify any possible pitfalls and get ready to explain them to your team.
  1. Have “the talk.” Have a straightforward conversation with your team to outline your expectations. Actually say the words “I expect” or “From here on out, we will….” Don’t assume that a parameter or pitfall is obvious; spell it out for your team. If you want data in an Excel document with a one-page executive summary or a report analyzing whether other agencies have successfully executed a similar project, tell them. Tell them how often they need to check in, tell them when you expect to see drafts, and tell them what mode of communication you want them to use with you. Ask if they need anything else or if you can clarify anything. When everyone knows what you expect, you’re setting your team up for success.
  1. Follow up in writing. By recapping your expectations, you’re not only making sure that your expectations are clear, but you’re also giving your team materials that they can refer to later. Remember to include due dates and check-in time frames.
  1. Give feedback regularly. This is another chance to reinforce your expectations. Be sure that your feedback is both timely and specific. It’s not enough to tell your team members that they did well, you also need to pinpoint why it was so good. They’ll be more likely to repeat the behavior in the future. Use the same specificity for constructive or negative feedback for the group. When you engage in regular feedback, you’re guiding the end product and investing in your employees.

Setting clear and actionable expectations is easy, but it takes time. Luckily you’ll get that time back – and more – when you’re not dealing with confused employees, poor work products, and frustrated superiors. Instead, you’re building trust, getting products that you can work with, and setting your team up for long term success.

I want to hear from you. How do you make sure you’re setting clear expectations for your staff?

Lauren Lien is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Daria Sanchez

Loved this article! Managing expectations is super important and so is feedback.
In my personal experience, having your tasks written out (whether it be on paper, email, etc) is quite useful and especially if it is a lot to remember. Personally, I liked e-mail a lot because I could easily reply with follow up questions if something was not clear to me.