Clarity is an essential element in creating a culture of accountability. Employees need to know exactly what is expected in regards to performance and behaviour; otherwise they will certainly fall short.

Yet, a study found that only 50% of employees are clear on what is expected of them. How can this be so low? What impact is that having across different organisations?

If managers fail to put clear expectations in place, they’re setting themselves up for challenges in the future. When standards of performance or behaviour inevitably slip, it’s very difficult to hold that person accountable for something they’re not fully aware of. Or, rather, it’s impossible to do it effectively and without damaging the relationship.

What happens when expectations aren’t clearly defined?

Disappointment - A survey found than 1 in 4 employees unintentionally waste time and miss targets because of confusion around expectations. Scaled up, this misalignment and the subsequent under-performance can have a huge impact on teams and entire organisations.

Distrust - Inevitably, when things go wrong and it reaches breaking point, blame is attributed. However, the ensuing fall-out - resentment and frustration - could be prevented. For example, how many formal HR cases of disciplinary, grievance or performance improvement plans could be avoided through an earlier informal intervention from the manager?

Disengagement - People want to feel connected to a purpose. Whether it’s to the project, team or organisation’s objectives, we want our jobs to matter. Clarity around expectations helps people stay focused, engaged and connected.

How to set clear expectations in 6 simple steps

  1. Focus on what you want to achieve and establish your expectations of others.
  2. Context supports clarity. Help others to feel engaged with why an expectation is being set so they understand your motive and intent.
  3. If the way in which an objective is achieved is important, be clear on expectations regarding process.
  4. Check that there is mutual understanding and alignment concerning the expectations being set.
  5. Agree how the performance will be measured.
  6. Write down the expectations and share them with those involved for increased clarity.

Just setting the expectation isn’t enough

Expectations are typically measured as weekly, monthly or annual objectives and metrics. Joe Mackintosh, Senior Facilitator at GRA, often reiterates “when setting expectations of people, we tend to only focus on the objectives and forget the behaviours that are required to achieve them."

Setting the expectations is just the starting point. Regular communication is required to discuss their approach and process, to hold people accountable if expectations are being missed and to provide feedback on performance to support their development.

Discussing a performance gap is much easier once the expectations have been set. During a conversation to discuss a failure to meet expectations, leading with an observation is likely to be met with defensiveness. We suggest that managers should start by highlighting the agreed expectation before outlining their observations; as their motive is perceived as being far less accusatory.

Accountability not culpability

A culture of accountability works when small issues are dealt with efficiently and effectively; before they’re allowed to escalate. But it’s important to differentiate between accountability and culpability. Setting clear expectations is a critical first step in creating a culture of accountability where managers focus on:

  • Seeking understanding, not blame, and setting people or projects back on track
  • Dealing with each small bump in the road quickly so that it doesn’t derail progress
  • Creating an environment which enables people to develop

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