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I expect you to read this

I.M. Wright Why do the people you work with disappoint you? Why do they ignore requests, take shortcuts, and miss deadlines? Why is their work too much or too little rather than what you desire? It could be all of them, or it could be you. You could be the problem.

People are lazy. People are forgetful. People are overwhelmed. That’s all true. Yet work does get done, and people generally don’t like disappointing their managers and peers. The key to getting what you want is simple: Make your expectations clear. Be short. Be respectful. Be specific.

Whether you’re a manager or individual contributor, when requesting work from others (management, coworkers, staff, or across groups), the most powerful words you can say are, “I expect.” I expect this person to do this work by this time within these constraints. Because your expectations are clear, people can express their concerns about fulfilling them, and you can adjust your expectations as needed. Follow-ups and reminders will hold people accountable and drive results. Need more details? I expect you to keep reading.

Eric Aside

For more on effective communication, read You talking to me? Basic communication

No, Mr. Bond, I expect you …

People can’t meet your expectations if you fail to make them clear. With clear expectations, people might still fall short, but at least they had a chance to do what you desired. Saying “I expect you to do this by this time within these constraints” might seem overly formal, but that’s appropriate if what you need is important and necessary. For everything else, you can just ask politely.

Some examples:

  • I expect you to promote me to the next level by September assuming I continue to deliver work appropriate for that level.” Your career growth is important. It’s necessary for managers to know your expectations—they aren’t clairvoyant. If those expectations are unrealistic or require you to improve, your manager will let you know, which is exactly the feedback you need.
  • I expect you to deliver your dependency (or feature) by end of Q3 that passes these tests unless we agree to change plans.” Your commitments are important. Delivering a dependency (or feature) on time with high quality is necessary. Make your expectations unambiguous, and your co-workers can meet them or negotiate more realistic expectations.
  • I expect you to treat your co-workers with respect and make them feel welcome and heard during the next review period if you wish to be promoted or even remain employed at this company.” Professional behavior is important. Fostering diversity and inclusion is necessary to hire and retain the best talent and deliver leading products. Employees need to know what’s expected of them and the consequences of falling short.

If you have multiple expectations, multiple timetables, or multiple constraints, use a bullet list or a table. Be as clear as possible.

Notice the specificity in each of the previous examples. The person responsible is specific—an individual, not a team. Similarly, the need is specific, the timeframe is specific, and the constraints are specific. Anything less is open to misunderstanding and unexpected results.

Eric Aside

For more on ensuring your employees meet your expectations, read The toughest job—Poor performers.

If you walk away, I will follow

Setting clear expectations is necessary but not sufficient. You must follow up with individuals, check on progress, and ensure your expectations remain clear. That’s how you remind people of their commitments (folks are forgetful), show them you’re serious, and hold them accountable.

You’re not being a nag by following up—you’re providing a service. Remember, people prefer to deliver and be appreciated (as opposed to fail and disappoint). By following up, you’re reminding them of upcoming deliverables, answering questions, clarifying expectations, and dealing with any issues, all of which helps them succeed.

Follow up on a schedule proportional to the remaining time. When there are months left, sync monthly; weeks left, sync weekly; and days left, sync daily. You can meet for sync-ups or share the status on a physical or virtual board. The key is to trust what people say but verify that the work meets your expectations.

Eric Aside

For more on delegation, read Effective delegation. For more on boards, read Too much of a good thing? Enter Kanban.

Extenuating circumstances

Even when they have the best of intentions, people can struggle to meet your expectations. Situations change. Priorities change. Life changes.

When change happens and issues arise, you want to know as soon as possible so you can adjust while there’s still time. Great co-workers will inform you immediately, but otherwise, you won’t find out until the next time you follow up—another great reason to follow up regularly. (You should be a great coworker, too, and promptly let people know about issues.)

It’s tempting to compromise your expectations when issues or changes arise. However, compromising too quickly may jeopardize your success. Consider why you set your expectations as you did. Remind everyone of the reasons, and think through your options together. If you don’t take your expectations seriously, no one else will.

After discussing the situation with your stakeholders, if there’s an option or compromise that everyone agrees still meets with success (no one objects), then reset expectations clearly and move forward. This kind of respectful collaboration builds trust and reinforces what’s important about your shared goals.

Eric Aside

For more on cross-team collaboration, read Winning among friends. For more on upholding expectations around work-life balance, read Better learn life balance. For more on handling mistakes gracefully, read I messed up.

Say what you mean

People disappoint each other all the time. However, that’s often due to misunderstandings and inattention. You can increase your success by making your expectations clear and following up.

When you need something from others that is important and necessary, say, “I expect [name] to do [thing] by [timeframe] within [constraints].” If there are action items after a meeting, you can list the items as “[name]: [timeframe]: [thing] within [constraints].” Be clear and specific. Afterward, follow up regularly to remind them of upcoming deliverables, answer questions, clarify expectations, and deal with issues. When issues arise, reinforce the reasons behind your expectations and think through options together. If a change in expectations is necessary, ensure that no stakeholder objects and communicate the new expectations clearly.

You don’t enjoy disappointing others any more than they enjoy disappointing you. Being concise, respectful, and specific about your expectations gives people a fair chance to make you happy. Why deny them that chance? I expect you to enjoy more success tomorrow by following this advice today.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Bob Zasio for providing valuable feedback on the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.


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