Clear expectations can lead to greatness at work. But too often, expectations are unclear or unmet and result in disappointment. Maybe you didn’t get a promotion, the office with the great natural light, or win a contract with a new client.
In this article, we will discuss all the ways you can manage expectations. Read the section you need most right now:
- Managing expectations at work
- Managing expectations of others
- Setting and managing employee expectations
- Managing expectations in relationships
No matter which area you need help in, it’s important to be as clear as possible when you are communicating. Whenever possible, use this framework:
Communicate with “SMARTs” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-specific).
- Specific: As a team, we need to increase our cold calls by 20% to meet the quota.
- Measurable: I would love more help around the house. Can we set a 15-minute timer each night to clean up as much of the house as possible?
- Achievable: Our other salespeople are averaging 40 calls per month, and their conversion rate is higher. We can totally do this too!
- Relevant: I know your goal is to try more new things. Let’s commit to go to 1 new restaurant every week.
- Time-bound: Let’s check in about this in one month.
Managing Expectations at Work
Clearly, managing expectations at work has so many benefits, including better communication on teams and more productivity.
- Be clear about expectations. Say what you need and say it nicely.
- Overcommunicate. Talk often about what is working and areas for improvement.
If appropriate, follow up with a written recap of the conversation. Some people learn by hearing information, and others by reading it. Following up on a conversation helps cover both bases.
- Be open to compromise. If you want and can help, but not in the specific way you’re asked, consider what you can do.
- Manage expectations of yourself. If you tend to be hard on yourself, work on self-compassion. Give yourself grace when you make mistakes.
- Take things personally. If there’s a miscommunication, it is usually not about you. Ask for clarification so the situation can be resolved amicably.
- Make assumptions. Remember the old adage, “To assume makes an ass out of you and me.” No one can know what the other person is thinking, and when assumptions are made, both parties often look bad.
- Respond rashly. Sometimes the best way to respond is to pause. If a conversation becomes heated or pushes your buttons, ask if you can think about it. Cool down and then get back to them, resulting in a better outcome for both of you.
At the most basic level, every employee wants to know the details of the physical and mental demands, the culture of the office, and potential stressors. They want to be aware of what is outlined in their job description and the unspoken expectations as well.
Gallup workplace research explored12 different needs of employees and “knowing what is expected of them at work” topped the list. More specifically, the study found that only one in two employees strongly agreed that they knew what was expected of them at work. They went on to say that by increasing that ratio to eight in ten, organizations could realize a 22% reduction in turnover, a 29% reduction in safety incidents, and a 10% increase in productivity.
When expectations are clear, employees are happier, more engaged, and more likely to stay in the workplace. Morale increases and the overall work environment is more productive. It’s an obvious way to improve the company without spending a dime.
Having clear expectations also:
- Builds trust between the manager and the employee
When a manager articulates clear expectations, it builds connection and trust. According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, 58% of people say they trust strangers more than their own boss. This is not good for collaboration, employee retention, and productivity, so investing time to set and reiterate expectation is critical for business success.
- Supports personal wellness
Understanding what others expect from you—colleagues, managers, clients, or vendors—can help reduce stress, improving overall mental wellness by reducing confusion and unknowns. Wouldn’t it be better to spend the mental energy on the task rather than wondering if it’s important?
- Inspires a growth mindset
Communicating about expectations isn’t something most people have seen modeled, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be improved. A willingness to learn shows a growth mindset where you believe you can develop and increase your abilities through hard work and dedication. People with a growth mindset tend to be happier, more successful, and more fulfilled. Learn about this self-improvement opportunity in The Growth Mindset: How to Learn.
- Hones your skills
Setting and managing reasonable expectations is a skill based on excellent communication, as is providing and receiving feedback graciously. Practicing it with your coworkers, managers, and team members helps you continue to grow and expand your skills and position within the company.
- Establishes accountability
Knowing where you will head can create standards and metrics for yourself and your team to achieve the company’s goals. If everyone acts with the same understanding of the duties and timelines, collaboration and productivity increase and lead to better outcomes.
Managing Others’ Expectations (As an Employee)
It’s challenging to manage the expectations of others, particularly at work. After all, you do tasks to receive your paycheck, and it’s reasonable for your manager to have performance expectations in key areas.
But sometimes—whether it’s your boss asking if you can take on another big project or the coworker that expects you to grab lunch every day, expectations—spoken or perceived—can feel like too much.
How you manage a supervisor’s expectations will likely differ from a colleague’s, and it requires you to use your best judgment and clear communication to strike the appropriate balance of honesty and integrity while not compromising your wellness or values.
1. You can ask clarifying questions.
After hearing the request, it’s reasonable to ask for more information before deciding how to respond. After restating what you heard and confirming it is accurate, feel free to ask more questions:
- When do you need it done?
- What is the urgency?
- Who needs to be consulted or included in the project?
- What is the deliverable?
- Is there flexibility in the approach?
- What specifically do you need?
Three great clarifying phrases are:
- To be clear…
- Just to clarify…
- What I think you’re asking is…
2. You don’t have to say yes to be likable.
It’s natural to want others to like you. And sometimes, it feels like you have to “take one for the team.” But according to a UCLA study, sincerity, transparency, and capacity for understanding are the top adjectives (out of more than 500) related to likeability. You can be sincere, transparent, and say no to a request.
For example, you might say:
- I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me right now. Can I help you brainstorm another solution?
- I’d love to help, but I’m on a deadline right now. Please let me know the next time this opportunity comes up, and if I can work it into my schedule, I’d be happy to support it.
- Oh, I wish I could, but my partner is always teasing me about how I can’t say no. So we have a bet going about whether I can go a month without adding anything new to my schedule–and I want to win!
- I’m sure your child’s theater program will be wonderful, but I am not available this weekend.
- I’d love to support the employee’s birthday celebration, but I’m not really a baker. Can I bring paper goods instead?
- Fantasy football sounds fun, but I don’t know a quarterback from a cornerback. But when the next epic fantasy flick comes out, I’m all in.
If you’re honest with people, they’ll be more real with you. Learn how by reading Be More Likable Using These 5 Science-Backed Strategies, and you might just hear some of the three best words in the English language–I like you–more often!
3. You don’t have to respond right away.
While you may feel compelled to respond immediately, it’s acceptable to ask if you can get back to them. The request for additional time and information shows that you’re seriously considering it and want to evaluate what’s on your plate. It’s better to have a solid response than a quick one, which may jeopardize the project or result in you failing to perform.
Sample script: Thanks for asking me about taking on that project. I’d like to get back to you by the end of the day tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to look at the existing workload and identify any potential issues first. Would that work for you?
4. You can compromise.
Instead of a no, you may be able to find a way to compromise or meet them halfway. Maybe it’s by extending the timeframe, contributing later on in the project, offering to have your assistant help (check with them first!), or helping with a smaller piece. For example, you could try out one of these phrases:
- “I cannot compile that data for you today, but I’d be happy to help you with it next week.”
- “Because of our project budget, I cannot allocate any additional resources right now. But I’d be happy to have my team show you how to initiate that process and answer questions along the way.”
- “I wish I could help you write that report. I have other deadlines and pressing priorities right now, but I’d be happy to review a draft.”
- “I can’t meet with the team next week, but let’s set up a quick check-in to get you started.”
5. You can explain the rationale.
If you feel it’s essential for the other person to understand why you’re not able to say yes to their request, particularly if it’s a supervisor, boss, or person in a higher-level position, then provide some context. Be honest and respectful but clear.
- I’m unable to meet over because I’m diabetic and find it’s better for my blood sugar if I take a 20-minute walk at lunch. Is there a different time that might work?
- I’d like to participate, but my current workload takes up most of my hours. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but one of my staff is on personal leave, and we’re also covering those duties. I’d happily consider it when we’re back to full staffing.
- I cannot attend that after-work event because of my responsibilities in caring for my mother.
Depending on the relationship with a co-worker, you may decide that you don’t want to explain why you can’t go out after work or help them with their assignment. It’s okay to say you’re sorry you aren’t able to help without explaining why.
6. You can set professional boundaries.
Protecting yourself and your wellness by setting boundaries is a useful and often underutilized skill. You can mean what you say and say what you mean without being mean. Sometimes this is hard because you’re not sure what is acceptable.
Examples of reasonable boundaries include:
- Asking for a scheduled meeting instead of an impromptu one (unless it’s a true emergency!) I’m focused on a different project right now. Can we talk after lunch?
- Setting a specific length of time for a conversation I have 15 minutes that I can set aside for this.
- Sticking to a specific conversation topic, I am unable to discuss that now, but I’d be happy to talk about it next week. Please send me a meeting invitation for a time that works for you.
- Limiting contact outside or work. My family time is precious to me, so I’m not able to meet up after work.
- Not responding to emails or calls after hours. It’s okay not to work after work. Period.
- Limiting what you share about your personal life. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, you don’t have to. Try to find common neutral topics that are work-related.
- Limiting others’ sharing. I’m a little uncomfortable with this topic. Can we circle back to the project update? Is there anything else you’d like to share about it?
- When others are complaining about a co-worker. I appreciate you sharing, but I don’t need the details. I know we’re both busy, so in the interest of time, is there anything else we need to discuss?
- Taking time to respond to a request. Hmm, that may work, but I need to check my schedule.
Setting and Managing Expectations as a Leader
Managers are leaders and problem-solvers. Their job is to communicate effectively, introduce and model the company culture, inspire those who work for them, and paint a picture of what high performance and success look like for the team.
When managers do this well, the organization functions and performs at the highest levels. Doing poorly can result in low morale, increased turnover, loss of respect for management, burnout, missed deadlines, and personal problems.
#1. Developing a management mindset
Excellent managers help their employees show up as the best versions of themselves through expectation setting. When supervisors communicate that they believe the person can accomplish great things, they believe and do it! This is called the Pygmalion effect, a psychological phenomenon in which high expectations lead to improved performance. It originated with the work of psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, who found that teachers’ expectations of their students affect the students’ performance. (Pygmalion in the Classroom,1968) When the expectation is low, the employee’s performance is lacking, known as the golem effect.
In her book Captivate, best-selling author Vanessa Van Edwards talks about the principle of highlighting, which she defines as “truly expecting the best from people and helping everyone in your life perform, act, and show up as the best, most honest version of themselves.” As managers highlight their employees while articulating expectations, it encourages the best out of each employee.
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When managers set wrong expectations, are afraid to discuss unmet expectations, or don’t set expectations at all, it can lead to challenges and requires course correction… Let’s explore these further:
- Wrong expectations result from too little conversation and direction on the front end. A good way to avoid this is to start setting the foundation during recruitment.
For example, the conversation between a manager and a potential employee may look like this:
“This is a tough job that is going to require your heart and soul for 50-60 hours per week over the next six months, but the work we do is very meaningful and fun. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, we’d like to have you join our team. But if that doesn’t sound like your ideal work environment, we’d rather you know that up front.”
Then, if the person joins the team and only works 40-45 hours, they are pleasantly surprised because they expected it to be more demanding. After all, the manager was clear from the beginning.
- Unmet expectations occur for many reasons. It could be that both people aren’t operating from the same understanding, the employee didn’t meet the goals the way the manager wanted, or the expectation is unrealistic. This requires the manager and employee to discuss the implications, consequences, and follow-up action.
- No expectations are just that—when there’s been no clarity or agreement around a particular set of deliverables or values. This can be disastrous because the employee does not know what the manager thinks yet is expected to meet the unspoken goals.
To prevent misunderstandings, it’s important to have conversations and often set, assess, and reiterate expectations. These are the foundation of a good working environment and relationship. If you are clear about what you need from the person and know what you want, they can perform (or not perform) up to the standards you’ve set out.
Managing Expectation Errors (As a Boss)
Expectations can be very reasonable—like showing up to work, being on time, and being ready to work. Still, it can negatively affect the workplace if they aren’t articulated.
While it may be difficult to initially communicate with an employee who is not meeting your expectations, you are doing them a favor in the long run. They need to receive feedback and make appropriate adjustments. Even if they don’t like what you’re saying, you can earn trust and respect for being clear about what it takes to get the job done.
#2. Communicate in person
If you can, communicate in person. It’s nice to read the body language to see if the person understands, is confused, irritated, or is happy with what they’re hearing. If you can’t talk in person, set up a Zoom or a phone call.
Learn more about instantly building rapport and 16 other signals to immediately improve your communication—without saying a word in our Ultimate Guide to Body Language.
Remember, when possible, be as specific as possible.
Sample Script: Thank you for getting together to discuss the sales performance over the last month. It surprised me that your numbers were lower than usual, and I wanted to discuss how we can increase those numbers again so our overall sales increase.
[Listen to their response.]
Wrap-up: I have confidence in you and the skill sets and experience you bring to this position. I want to be sure we’re on the same page regarding how we will address this situation.
Over the next month, I’d like to see your progress by making 36 cold calls. Each week, I’d like you to send a written report by Friday at noon with the names, company names, brief notes, and the outcome of each call you made. I’d like to set up another check in two weeks from today to see if there are any obstacles or additional support you need. How does that sound?
#3. Do it sooner rather than later
Addressing difficult, tough conversations head-on and sooner rather than later is usually much better and could prevent you from making an even harder decision later. For example, it’s usually better to identify issues in a trial period rather than having them lead to behaviors or challenges later on down the road (and where you potentially need to fire the individual). Of course, if your emotions are high, take time to cool down and handle the situation head-on.
Tips for managing expectations early on:
- Schedule weekly 1-on-1 meetings to ensure you’re on the same page.
- Ask to see an outline of their approach before it goes to the team.
- Review initial drafts of materials.
- Ask the individual to prepare a summary of your meetings to confirm you’re on the same page.
#4. Use this morale-boosting phrase
When delivering the message, treat the person as you would like to be treated if you were hearing this from your boss. Be caring, but clear. In a 2014 study about giving “wise feedback,” psychologists found that using this one simple sentence can make negative feedback up to 40% more effective:
“I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations, and I know you can reach them.”
Managing Your Personal Expectations
Let’s face it. We can be hard on ourselves and develop unrealistic goals. Perhaps we missed a deadline, our partner didn’t respond as we had hoped, or the holidays didn’t bring the joy we expected.
This can result in unnecessary stress, self-criticism, and perfectionist tendencies. While it can be good to have high standards, offer yourself grace and self-compassion when you make a mistake or don’t meet a goal, just as you would give a friend.
Best-selling author Brené Brown says, “Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”
The best approach is to move through it quickly.
1. Acknowledge it. Feeling sad about something that didn’t meet your expectations is okay. It’s human to want things to go our way.
2. Accept it. Everyone has experienced disappointment, even the most talented athlete and highest-performing entrepreneur. What separates people is how they respond to the setback.
3. Keep it in context. Don’t overinflate the event. Consider it as a blip and look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself whether it will matter in a week, a month, or a year. Remember, sometimes the biggest disappointments can lead to an even better opportunity down the road.
4. Get some perspective. Talk about it with a trusted friend or therapist to get feedback. Did you have unrealistic expectations? Was your expectation based on assumption?
5. Be gentle with yourself. Instead of beating yourself up, remind yourself that you are a wonderfully imperfect individual with a unique journey.
6. Let it go. Holding onto disappointment isn’t helpful. Author Anne Lamott described expectations as resentments waiting to happen. Instead of allowing resentment to build, acknowledge the disappointment and move forward to the next situation, asking what you can learn from this experience.
7. Manage your mindset. When others let you down, it’s because you hoped for more. But falling into the victim mentality prevents us from moving on to bigger and better things. The sooner you can let go of the resentment, the sooner you can move forward.
8. Forgive yourself. Perhaps you made a mistake, a poor decision, or let yourself down. Don’t let shame get the best of you. Accept that it happened and make a commitment to do better next time.
9. Take action. If you missed a goal at work, make a plan to make it right and prevent it from happening in the future. If you didn’t get the promotion, look for ways to improve your interviewing skills, network more effectively, or obtain feedback on how you can do better next time. Just move forward.
Managing Expectations in Relationships
Setting expectations in personal relationships is the roadmap for how you want to be treated. If you aren’t clear about how you want to be treated, then the other person doesn’t know and may push beyond what is comfortable for you.
But it’s sometimes difficult to set boundaries because of the desire to please the other person. You may think they’ll love you more if you say yes or be fearful of their reaction if you say no. Or you don’t want to appear rigid or inflexible.
While it’s great to want to help, you can do what is good for you. You’re not a bad or selfish person by looking out for yourself. Sure, you help them out sometimes, but neither person should feel depleted or manipulated.
Healthy relationships include give and take. It’s okay to say, “I love and respect you, but I’m unable to do [insert the thing].” And a loving partner will understand.
Signs of unhealthy boundaries include:
- Saying yes when you want to say no
- Feeling exhausted from accommodating another person, which can lead to resentment
- Doing something that is against your values, ethics, or morals
- Feeling the need to make excuses about why you are saying no
- Letting someone touch you in a way that is not comfortable
For 10 signs of healthy and unhealthy boundaries, read How to Set Boundaries: 5 Ways to Draw the Line Politely. Here’s what you can do to set boundaries and manage expectations in relationships:
- Start small. If you may be as simple as having an opinion about what restaurant you will eat at instead of saying, “I don’t care.”
- Be consistent. Once you set a boundary, don’t waffle.
- Set expectations early. For example, you might say, “I have a yoga class on Thursdays that I don’t want to miss, so I’d be happy to meet another day.”
- Communicate clearly. Just as you want to communicate clearly with co-workers, you also want to talk with loved ones and friends. It’s okay to tell your mother that you’re not coming for Thanksgiving or don’t want to discuss your dating life.
- Use scripts. By developing a few scripts, you can become more comfortable setting expectations in your relationships.
- When you don’t want to do something: “Let me think about that and get back to you.”
- When you’re pressed for an answer: “I need time to think about it, but if you can’t wait, I totally understand if you need to make other arrangements.” And leave it at that.
- When you don’t want to discuss a topic: “I know you care about my life, but I don’t want to discuss my dating life. Please stop asking me about it.”
- When someone tries to hug you, you don’t want to be hugged. Step backward and hold out your hand for a handshake. Or laugh and say, “I’ve given up hugging for Lent.”
- When someone tries to put you in the middle of a disagreement. “I love both of you, and I’m sure you are smart enough to work it out without me.”
- When you’re at a holiday gathering, and you need space, “I am feeling maxed out and need a little introvert time. I’m going to take a walk and will be happy to reengage when I’m back.”
- When someone puts you on the spot with a question you don’t know the answer to: “I’ve been wondering about that too! I’ll be happy to research and get back to you.”
- When politics comes up at the Thanksgiving table, “I’m thankful that I don’t have to discuss this…” and ask them what they’re thankful for.
- When someone gives you unsolicited advice: “You could be right.”
Want to learn more about other soft skills like how to read body language, talk to VIPs, and read facial expressions? Check out Communication Skills Training: 6 Things You Need To Look For.