Great expectations?

Image: Shutterstock
Jul 05 2023 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

One of the most common sayings in business (at least in the dark ages, when I first became a manager) was, “people will do what you expect and what you inspect.” In other words, your employees need to know what you want, and if it matters enough to have metrics that measure success. This is true of any job, anywhere. It’s particularly true on remote or hybrid teams, where there are fewer opportunities to inspect the work in person, or on-demand.

In keeping with the saying, there are two important steps involved here.

1. Do they know what to expect?

“What do you want me to do?” feels like a simple question. But every request actually contains a lot of details that are critical to achieving the desired goal. For example:

Say I ask that you “look at last month’s numbers and give me a report for the meeting on Friday.” That sounds simple enough. But let’s look at all the information someone needs to complete that properly.

  • What data set are we using? For a standard report done and shared every Friday, people likely know what data to include, and what to exclude. The more people are familiar with the report and its uses, the less explicit language is necessary.
  • What level of detail do we need and what format should we use? Once again, this may be tacit and understood by everyone. But there’s a difference between a five-page spreadsheet and a two-paragraph executive summary. Who is the intended audience? In what format do you want the information? Is it a verbal presentation or a report to be read later?
  • What is the timeline? Sure, the meeting is Friday. But does someone need to see the information before sharing it at the meeting? Should someone double check it? There are also questions about the priority of this task versus other jobs the person is doing.
  • What happens if the expectations are not met? Many of us have missed a deadline, and it’s not a big deal. Maybe there’s a report that used to be expected and everyone’s forgotten about until someone needs information in a hurry. Part of setting expectations is “What are the consequences if the expectations aren’t met?” Is it a big deal? Or not?

Lack of clarity on the part of the person doing the work can result in not meeting the boss’s expectations. Often, we don’t know there’s a lack of communication or clarity until the work product isn’t up to snuff. Hence the importance of also knowing how you’ll measure success.

How will the work be inspected?

The word inspect is emotionally loaded. At its simplest, it means the work meets the quality and other standards set out when the task was assigned. Additionally, there are other things to be considered.

  • What resources are available between the assignment and its delivery? In the office, if you have a question or concern, you hunt down the boss (or a knowledgeable co-worker) and ask the question. But conversely, what if you’re not in the office? Or the person you would normally ask isn’t there? Can people get answers before they encounter larger problems?
  • As a manager, are you expected to simply trust the job will be done? Again, if the person does the job all the time, or has done it successfully, you likely trust them and don’t need to check in to monitor progress. However, with someone new to the task, do you expect them to raise the flag if they have questions? Or do you check in with them before the deadline to see how things are going?
  • Whose standards need to be met? If the criteria for success aren’t agreed to, it sets the stage for tension. One person’s “good enough” is another person’s “unacceptable.”
  • When will the work be inspected? Discuss this when the expectations are set. Otherwise, the manager asking questions out of the blue may feel like interference or micromanagement. When check-ins are an expectation, it is not such a big deal. But it only takes one missed deadline or the work not meeting (often assumed) expectations for trust to erode.

Regardless of whether or not you share a workspace, all of this is true. With fewer opportunities to check in with each other or ask last-minute questions comes a greater chance for misunderstanding and problems when the expectations aren’t met.

As a leader, make sure that the expectations are clear and the metrics for success are understood. As an employee, take it upon yourself to make sure you’re set up for success.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.