Establish Expectations, Not Just Goals

Is there a difference between goals and expectations?

Surely, there is, but it can be hard to articulate.

According to a 2015 survey from Gallup, roughly half of employees say they know what is expected of them at work. That can wreak havoc on employee productivity.

In fact, in another survey from ComPsych, 31% of respondents named “unclear expectations” as their biggest stressor at work. Clearly, it's time to recognize that expectations matter. Here's why.

What Are Goals and What Are Expectations?

Goals give us a challenge to help bring out our best.

Expectations give us simple habits and a professional code of conduct. Good expectations should also help us reach those goals — in the right way.

Think of a goal like the finish line. Expectations are the the daily actions, attitudes, practices that help you get there.

Maybe that's why companies like Netflix and Amazon have notoriously firm (and some might say harsh) expectations of their employees.

But how much do expectations (which can be anything from your tardiness policy to unspoken collective judgments on an employee's level of dedication) impact your team's ability to meet a goal? And how far are you willing to go to uphold your expectations?

Expectations are critical because they lay the groundwork for your company's culture. And what works for the Netflix, Amazon or even "lovey-doveys" like Zappos and Asana, may not work for you.

What Do Your Expectations Say about You?

Sometimes expectations are documented in black and white "rules" or "guidelines". Many times they're completely unspoken. Either way, they send a clear message about what's important to you as a company.

And while they may seem like simple things we can expect from any job, they’re actually much bigger than that.

They're the basic rules for the entire social system that keeps the office running.

In many cases, it's a system that works just fine. But what happens when your top performer violates the dress code? Do you let it slide or do you stick your values and address it?

Recently Wells Fargo has gotten in a lot of deserved hot water for the Fake Account Scandal. The rampant fraud that occurred across the organization shows what can go wrong when leadership sets very aggressive goals and then has very lax expectations of how employees reach those goals. Before long the implied expectations can become, meet your goals at all costs...even fraud.

Aggressive goals are important, but an organization also needs expectations if it is going to remain true to itself as it pushes to meet difficult targets.

Get Clear on What Really Matters

CEO of education platform Varsity Tutors, Chuck Cohn suggests making your expectations crystal clear (and well-documented).

"Creating a cultural identity can seem like an amorphous task that is potentially boundless in scope. Step one to push through this challenge is creating a simple and easy-to-articulate vision for what you are trying to accomplish and what sorts of behaviors, attitudes, and approaches are (and are not) valued by your organization. Try to explicitly describe, both to yourself and your team members, the culture you wish to create. This should exist in written form so as to prevent the message from being distorted."

Many leaders’ identities are so intertwined with their business that they don’t see the need to articulate company values. But employees have a different live experience and won’t share a leader’s values perfectly. It's unfair to assume that they should just "get it".

Keep your expectations clear, simple and documented (or frequently communicated) so everyone knows what matters. Or at least, so they can see where you're coming from when you pull them aside for a one-to-one.

Bring Your People in Close

Finally, your expectations shouldn’t be yours alone.

Much like goals, expectations are a moving target. They need to be set and reset in tandem with your employees and managers. Regular check-ins and reviews can help you keep your finger on the pulse of the values and expectations that are effectively moving your teams toward their goals, and alert you to those that could use a little rethinking.

While expectations can definitely be personal and tricky, they cut to the core of what a business does and who its people are. The good news is, we can choose to be just as intentional about setting and resetting high-performance expectations as we are about setting goals.