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Set Expectations and Be Happier at Work

People are not us; they do things their way, not ours. This is so obvious. Yet violated expectations are consistently a source of lots of frustration and upset, both personally and professionally. “How could you not check your work before submitting information to a client?” “What do you mean you didn’t call that person back?” “You said what?!”

The most frequent request we get at Candid Culture is for feedback training. The call usually goes something like this, “The Set expectationscommunication isn’t great at our company. Managers don’t give a lot of feedback. People don’t talk directly to each other when there are problems, they talk about each other. Can you help?”

Sure, we can help. But once we’re having this conversation people are already frustrated. Trust has been violated and relationships and reputations have been damaged. Instead of waiting for problems to occur, expect the unexpected. Set clear expectations before people don’t proofread reports, miss deadlines, and do other things you wouldn’t dream of doing.

How to avoid violated (often unstated) expectations? Ask more questions.

Here are five questions you should ask every person you work with to set expectations. And if you do, your workplace will have fewer frustrations and violated expectations:

  1. What’s most important that you’re working on right now? What are your goals this quarter?
  2. What are we both working on that we can work on together? Or what should one of us stop working on?
  3. How do you like to communicate? Phone, in-person, by appointment or drop by’s.
  4. How do you like to receive information – email, voicemail, text message or instant messenger?
  5. If I need information from you and I haven’t heard back from you, what should I do, and is it ok to do that?
  6. What are your pet peeves at work? How will I annoy you and not even know it?
  7. How do you like to be interrupted? (You’re going to be interrupted. You might as well have a preference.)

I know. That was seven questions, not five. I could keep going. But this is a good start.

Here’s the philosophy and practice: People aren’t you. Anticipate challenges, breakdowns, and violated expectations, and talk about them before they happen. Make requests. Ask questions.

It’s always easier to ask for what you want than to give feedback.

set expectations


Setting Expectations Leads to Greater Happiness

When I had knee surgery a bunch of years ago, the surgeon told me, “I didn’t fix your knee. I altered it.” He was trying to set the expectation that my knee wouldn’t be perfect, it would be different.

Setting expectations

Violated expectations are at the root of disappointment, frustration, and broken relationships. We think, “I expect you to do or be a certain way and you’re not, so I’m unhappy.” If you want to be more satisfied and less frustrated, change your expectations. I don’t mean lower your expectations. I really do mean change them.

I had a baby last year and had no idea how difficult it would be have someone I barely knew (our new nanny) take care of him. It was tortuous until I got the sage advice, “You’re not going to get everything you want. Pay attention to the big things and be ok with good enough.” That’s hard for me. I have high standards and I want things done a certain way (my way). But I also don’t want to do everything myself. So I find myself altering my expectations and being ok with good enough. And it’s very, very difficult.

You likely want each of your employees, coworkers, boss, clients, and vendors to do things a certain way. Sometimes they’ll meet those expectations and sometimes they won’t. Decide what you must have, communicate those expectations (repeatedly if necessary), and let the rest go.

Here are four steps for setting expectations at work:

Setting expectations step one: Consider everything you need or want from a person. Make a list, even if it’s just for you.

Setting expectations step two: Determine what that person is capable of providing. What’s realistic given who they are and the constraints they’re under (financial, time, skills, experience, etc.)?

Setting expectations step three: Reset your expectations, if necessary.

Setting expectations step four: Ask for what you want and be specific about your request. Telling someone, “This needs to get better,” will get you nothing. Telling someone, “I’d like to be included in each meeting that relates to this project and cc’d on all pertinent emails,” may just get you what you need.

As William Ury said in his book Getting to Yes, be hard on the problem and easy on the person. When you address violated expectations, simply share what you expected to have happen and what actually did happen. That could sound like, “I thought we agreed I would be invited to each meeting pertaining to this client. There was a meeting last week I wasn’t invited to. What happened?” Watch your tone of voice when asking this question. Be neutral and curious.

Changing your expectations will likely be a daily occurrence. People won’t necessarily do things your way or even in the way you hoped. Decide what you must have, and let the rest go. Just think of all the time and aggravation you’ll save.

Candor Questions to set expectations


Increase Your Job Satisfaction – Ask for More

Consider the things other people do that frustrate you. Now consider what you’re asking for.

You aren’t likely to get what you don’t ask for, but most people don’t ask for very much. We assume that the people in our lives will do the right thing without prompting. We’ll get the recognition and compensation we deserve at work because it’s the right thing to do. Our friends will remember our birthday because how couldn’t they know that’s important to us? And no one will come to our home empty handed for dinner because we would never do that.

If you read this blog regularly, you already know that I’m a proponent of setting clear expectations and asking more questions before problems occur. Consider what you want and need, anticipate what can go wrong, and plan accordingly before problems happen. Doing that sounds great in theory, but how does it work in practice?

Increase Your Job SatisfactionHere are five ways to increase your job satisfaction:

Increasing your job satisfaction tip one:  Be honest with yourself about what you need to be happy at work. Rather than tell yourself you won’t get what you need or try to convince yourself that you shouldn’t need something, just admit your needs to yourself.

Increasing your job satisfaction tip two:  Share your needs with people who can help you get those needs met. Don’t make people guess. Chances are they won’t guess at all or will guess wrong.

Increasing your job satisfaction tip three:  Don’t assume things will go well and just wait and see what happens. Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of new projects and working relationships.

Here’s how that could sound: “We’re going to be working together for the next six months. Let’s talk about how everyone likes to communicate, what people’s pet peeves are, and the kind of information each person wants to receive.”

Here’s another example of how that could sound: “I’m excited to work on this project with you. There are a few things to know about me that will help us work well together and delivery timely results. I ask a lot of questions. Let me know if this frustrates you. I’m not questioning you; I just have a need to understand why we do what we do. And I work best with a deadline. I am happy to be available off hours, but you probably won’t hear from me before 9 am. You will get messages and work from me at night and on the weekends. Just let me know if you’d prefer I schedule messages to go out during regular business hours.”

People might give you what you need if you ask, but they likely won’t if you don’t. Train others how to work with you.

Increasing your job satisfaction tip four:  Agree to talk about things as they happen. Don’t wait until you’re about to explode to speak up.

That could sound like, “I want us to work well together, and things will go wrong. Can we agree that we’ll provide feedback as things happen so we can make timely adjustments?”

Increasing your job satisfaction tip five:  Renegotiate when you need to. If you realize you need or want something that you didn’t ask for, go back and ask. It’s never too late.

Here’s how that could sound, “We touch base about once a month and I’m realizing that if we could talk for about 20 minutes once a week, I’d be able to get more done. Can we make that happen?”

Job satisfaction and happiness at work (and at home) don’t just happen. The people you live and work with are not you and they don’t know what you need. Make a regular practice of identifying what you need, making those needs known, and then speaking up when things go array. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. But you will get whatever you allow.

Increase Your Job Satisfaction


Retaining Employees by Setting Clear Expectations

Organizations are working hard at retaining employees. Employees are watching how their organization’s leaders and managers work, and often make career decisions based on the hours the most senior people keep. Not a recipe for retaining employees.

Many employees pay particular attention to how often managers and senior leaders take vacations and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re ‘off.’ Employees observe the late nights leaders and managers put in and the emails sent at 11:00 pm and on the weekends. I’ve heard lots of employees say, “If I need to work like my boss works to get ahead in this organization, I’m not interested.”
Retain Employees

Managers, the key to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect your employees to do the same, set that expectation. If you send an email outside of regular business hours but don’t expect employees to respond until the next business day, tell them so. They don’t know. Many employees assume that if you email them at night, you expect a reply.

Instead of allowing employees to make assumptions about what managers do and don’t expect, set clear expectations. Be overt and clear. Tell employees, “I work most evenings and weekends, but don’t expect you to do so. And I work these hours because I enjoy it, not because I have to. If I email you outside of regular business hours, I am not expecting you to reply.” Retaining good employees begins during the interview process, when initial expectations are first set.

Managers, if you expect employees to check and respond to emails outside of regular business hours and to be available while on vacation, tell them. If working long hours is a criteria for promotion, set that expectation preferably during the interview process. It’s completely fine to expect long hours and for employees to be accessible outside of regular business hours. There is nothing wrong with either expectation. There is only a problem if employees don’t know that’s the expectation.

Employees, if your manager emails you outside of regular business hours and she doesn’t tell you whether or not she expects you to reply, ask. Simply say, “I often receive emails outside of regular business hours. How will I know when you need me to reply?” Likewise, if you notice your manager emails you on vacation, you can say, “I typically hear from you when you’re on vacation. Are you expecting me to check in while I’m off?”

The need to ask questions and set expectations goes both ways. Don’t wait to be told. Ask.

Managers and employees, ask these Candor Questions about working style preferences to aid in retaining employees:

  • How do you feel about being contacted outside of regular business hours?
  • If I need to reach you over a weekend or in the evening, what method is best?
  • Would you prefer I text you so you don’t have to check your email outside of business hours?
  • What time is too early and too late to call, text, and/or email?

Ask more. Assume less and make retaining employees easier.

Retain Employees


Do I Tell Them I Didn’t Like the Gift? Gift Etiquette Advice

gift etiquette
“You shouldn’t have. No really, I mean it.”

It’s the season of gift giving, and you’re bound to get something you don’t like or won’t use. The question is, what to do with gifts you don’t want? What is the proper gift etiquette?

Do you tell your friends and family, and graciously exchange the gift for something else. Or do you suck it up and use it? Or do you hide the gift, bringing it out when the gift giver visits? Or do you re-gift to someone who might enjoy it more, or someone you simply don’t like? It’s good to have so many options.

In my family, my parents ask what I want and then tell me that no, they are not buying me that. Then they buy me whatever they want to. When I don’t like it, they tell me I’m hard to buy for. I’m assuming your family is less crazy.

In your perfect world perhaps your friends and family ask you want you want (ala Santa) and get you what you want. In my perfect world you make agreements when giving gifts that it’s ok (or not ok) to exchange the gift for something else. Either way is ok, but set the expectation in advance so you don’t insult anyone or hurt his feelings.

If you read my blog regularly or read my book, you know I’m all about setting expectations before challenges occur. It’s so much easier to ask for what you want than correct a violated expectation.

Gift Etiquette Advice:

Telling your mom, “Thank you in advance for whatever you buy me for the holiday. You really don’t have to get me anything. But if you do, and I don’t like it, how do you want me to handle it?” is a nice way to prevent hurting your mom’s feelings.

Or having a discussion as a family that sounds something like, “Let’s make a deal. We want everyone to enjoy the gifts they get. If anyone gets something they don’t like, they have permission to tell the person and ask to exchange it. No hurt feelings.”

You know your family better than anyone. If admitting you don’t like a gift will be insulting or land you on the receive-no-gift for life list, hold your tongue and re-gift, or wear the reindeer sweater. Pick your battles. And if you can return gifts on the sly, without having to tell anyone, all the better.

Either way, enjoy your time with family and friends. Eat too much food. Watch bad tv. And have a wonderful holiday!  I’ll look forward to seeing you in 2013.


Ask for What You Want – Set Expectations

Think about all the people in your life who frustrate you. The employees who turn in work without checking for errors. The person who offices next to you and takes phone calls via speaker phone. The person who is always late for meetings and then proceeds to text under the table, like no one can see him. And in personal relationships, our friends who come late, cancel, or just aren’t in touch as often as we’d like.

These situations annoy us, but we often donask for what you want’t say anything because giving feedback is simply too hard. Why risk the person’s defensiveness? Or we don’t think addressing the situation will make a difference.

Giving feedback can be hard. Asking for what you want is easier, but most of us don’t do it.

The question is why? If making a request is easier than correcting someone’s behavior, why not ask for what you want upfront? Why wait until expectations are violated to make a request?  The answer is simple.

We don’t think we should have to make requests. We assume our employees, coworkers, and friends will do things as we do.

We would never turn in work without checking it for accuracy or come to a meeting late. So we assume others won’t either. And when they do, it feels too hard to speak up, so we don’t.

I’m going to suggest you approach relationships differently –more proactively.

Ask for what you want at the beginning of a relationship, project, meeting – anything new. Set clear expectations. If you want to start and end meetings on time, tell people that during your first meeting.  And if you have an existing behavior you want to shift, simply say, “I realized I didn’t tell you that starting and ending meetings on time is really important to me. Going forward, we’re going to start and end all meetings on time. So please be ready for that.”  If you need a quiet work environment, when you get assigned a new desk or seat mate, tell your coworkers that you are easily distracted by noise and ask them to take all calls via a hand or head set and to limit posses of visitors. If it bugs you when people wear shoes in your house, tell them when they arrive. Don’t expect people to guess you’re frustrated  and alter their behavior without you making a request. It’s not going to happen.

Consider all the things that annoy you. Then consider what you did or didn’t ask for. If you haven’t made your expectations clear, it’s not too late. Asking for what you want is easier than you think.


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