‘I know what’s expected of me at work’. It’s no coincidence that this is the first, foundational question of the Gallup Q12 measure of engagement.
Everything flows from this. It’s pivotal to happiness and personal fulfilment, not to mention productivity. And yet, so few companies are really clear on expectations.
You want all your staff to get to the end of their day and know they’ve done well. To do this, it needs to be clear what game they’re playing, the rules they’re following and where the white lines are on the field. And they need their score in real-time. It’s amazing the difference this can make. I don’t believe people go to work to under-achieve. In my opinion, most will want to do a good job. But to do that, they need to have a clear understanding of what good looks like.
This may seem blindingly obvious but it amazes me how often people are totally reactive in their jobs. They arrive at their desk and do the first thing that crops up. Or they fill their time with busywork. This is because they have no clear idea of what’s expected. I had breakfast with someone who worked for a large corporate recently. He’d just had his annual appraisal and been told he was a B performer. Apparently, he hadn’t done the things his manager had wanted. But not once in the entire 12 months had he been told what these things were. Incredible!
Everyone will have a different idea of what ‘good’ looks like. It’s really important to recognise this. Your manager, your colleague and your business will all have their own take on expectations. And when these aren’t congruent, then someone is likely to be disappointed. This can lead to frustration and negativity – neither of which is good in a business. So, it’s important to be really deliberate about getting clarity.
We all have different filters through which we view the world. These are formed by who we are, where we’re from, our upbringing and our past life experiences. When we look in the mirror, we think everyone’s just like us. They’re not. The way we see the world is not how others do. And the way we react and deal with situations is unique.
This is something that managers need to understand. When there’s a task to be completed, they’ll often assume that their team member knows as much as they do. Or that this person will complete the task in the way they would. There are two expectations at play here. The first about the result. The second about how you get to the result. It’s much more important to focus on the first. It really shouldn’t matter how the result is achieved – each of us should be able to achieve the outcome in our own way.
That’s why I love CliftonStrength’s – Gallup’s profiling tool. As the manager talks through the team member’s objectives, they have a mechanism for discussing what they’re trying to do and how they’re making progress. Knowing their team member’s strengths enables a manager to look at a challenge and say, ‘This is how I would tackle it but I know you will tackle it differently, according to your strengths. I can’t tell you what to do.’ They can then agree an objective and talk through ways of tackling it.
Core values and their resulting core behaviours are critical to ensuring a high performing culture. Spend time working out what you expect from your staff in terms of the way they behave and relate to others. Make sure you’re clear about what your values really mean. They should provide your company’s unique vocabulary – the way you talk about all the positive or negative things day in, day out.
Values enable individual employees to assess their own behaviour and progress and understand their contribution. It shouldn’t be up to managers to tell them whether they’ve done well or badly. On a Friday at 6pm, they should know instinctively if they’ve had a good or bad week. Then it’s the manager’s role to discuss how they can help them improve.
Wherever I’ve worked in the past, we’ve taken our values and made our appraisal scheme behaviour related. Not an annual appraisal scheme I hasten to add. If you’ve read my blogs before, you’ll know how much I hate anything that’s done on an annual basis. I’m talking about quarterly performance reviews where the employee fills in their form themselves and it’s clear enough to say, ‘This is what I’ve done, here are examples of me living the values, doing these behaviours, doing what I’m supposed to do. I rate myself as A, B or C.’ A leadership development framework can be really useful here showing a clear path for progression linked to core values. This is how you manage expectations.
Individual KPIs are central to setting clear expectations, enabling staff to work independently within a highly effective structure. Work them out for every member of staff using a job analysis template. For every role, find the top three to five activities that add value to the business. Track these as a regular part of your daily huddles so that, at the end of each day, employees can see how they’ve moved the needle forward in a positive way.
I love OKRs or Objectives and Key Results. They nail down ‘Who, What and When’, ensuring clarity on accountability and delivery goals. Maybe they’re time or activity-based – either way, they’ll show progression towards an objective.
To illustrate their effectiveness, I like to relate them to personal goals. Say you’ve decided to get fit. Unless you’ve got a proper plan, this isn’t going to happen. Every person has their own definition of what being fit looks like – their individual expectation. So, you need to get specific on the goal and the things you need to achieve to get there. Maybe it’s to run a marathon. OK – when by? Two years from now? Also OK, but how fast do you want to run the marathon? You set yourself a target of completing the course within five hours and you start planning.
First, you have to work out where you’re starting from. This is individual to you. You may be a runner already or you may be a couch potato. So, you need to decide some realistic parameters for success. Your target is to run the marathon in five hours but if you do it in four, even better. Six hours would also be ok. More than six and you’d have failed miserably. Your objective doesn’t have to be binary – it can change according to your progress. Your plan will have milestones along the way to measure how much faster you’re running at each stage. You can share your progress with your personal trainer at each milestone and take corrective action if you’re falling short.
In this way, OKRs will clarify organisational expectations like nothing else. Everyone will know where they’re heading, how quickly they’re going to get there and their score in real-time.
I mentioned this earlier – I don’t think annual rhythms work. A quarterly cycle is much more effective, both in terms of performance development and goal setting. Time and again, I’ve seen how a 90-day rhythm can build alignment in a business. It’s far easier to see the link between what you do today and a quarterly theme as you can see and make sense of a nearer horizon. Think weekly check-ins on the Blue Peter totaliser rather than playing for a year and finding out the score months after the game finished.
Take my marathon example above. You’ve never trained for this before so, for the first 30 days, it’s likely you’ll be making things up. A couple of months in, you may need to recalibrate because things are going better or worse than you thought. At 90 days you can ask whether the objective is still realistic. No plan survives first contact, as the military would say. With annual goals, there’s no mechanism for recalibration of key results. You wouldn’t hire a personal trainer and then only see them annually.
Writing things down can be really useful. Unless you write down a goal, it’s not a plan, it’s just a dream. Try to act in a specific way. Encourage all your managers to put on paper their expectations and their team members’. It’s impossible to know what people are thinking if it’s in their heads and not on paper.
Written expectations will ensure both sides understand. By doing this, people will get clarity and commitment to what they’re going to do. Whether it’s a behaviour or a performance expectation, they can work out what they’re going to measure, what an acceptable standard looks like, how they report back etc. And this should then be shared publically with total transparency. Group reporting against expectations is really valuable. As is celebrating when you achieve your goals. Plan a reward when teams meet expectations – so often this happens but there’s no proper recognition.
Finally, your organisation needs to create space for failure. This comes down to whether you’ve successfully built an atmosphere of psychological safety in your company. If there’s a culture of blame or fear, this isn’t going to work. Team managers can’t expect to see behaviours in their team that they don’t live up to themselves.
It’s important that employees are comfortable having challenging, frank conversations with one another. When someone hasn’t lived up to expectations, you need to feel able to tell them why.
Someone once said to me, ‘You know Dom. When you’ve got that level of clarity in a company, the only person who can fire you is yourself’. I like that. Get crystal clear on expectations. Make sure everyone knows that failing to deliver has consequences. Then your staff will instinctively know whether they’ve done well or badly. You won’t need to tell them.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.