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Going Clear: Setting Expectations for Your People

Last summer, on a muggy Sunday afternoon, my dear friend, Sarah and I were out for a power waddle.* As is typical of such waddles, we were discussing life and love, and she shared this gem of a quote:

“An unarticulated expectation is a disappointment guaranteed.”

She shared this gem in the context of relationships, but, wow - this quote is so powerful for management. How often are we disappointed by the people we manage? How often do we think:

“You spent a week working and THIS is what you have to show for it?”


“Yikes - this is what you think ‘client-ready’ looks like?”


“How could you possibly think this is good?”

We’ve all been there and have gotten frustrated by our team members when they swing and totally whiff with regards to our expectations. We end up redoing their work, saying harsh things about their abilities, or writing them off as less competent than we originally thought. BUT - how much of this is our own fault as managers? Have we set and communicated clear, well-defined expectations for our people? Are our expectations unarticulated?

Friends, today we are going to talk about the importance of expectation-setting in being a great manager. It’s a simple concept, but many managers - especially first-time ones - don’t do a great job of being explicit with what they want and need from their people. And, when your ‘people’ are very junior (or it’s their first job!), not setting clear expectations becomes even more detrimental to everyone’s success. So don't try to 'manage by mind-reading': to be a great boss, you have to set clear, well-defined and explicit expectations for your team members.

Before we get into the how of good expectation-setting, I want to talk a little bit about why it’s sometimes hard to set expectations as a manager.

1. Fear of Being a Micro-Manager: You’re hip, you’re cool, you want everyone to like you, so you give your team freedom and flexibility! You never want to be called a micro-manager and know the importance of letting your people ‘figure things out’ as opposed to telling them what to do. But guess what….you’re giving your people significant anxiety because they have no idea what to do. And, micro-managing is very different from being clear about what you need from your colleagues. In a very unscientific study I conducted of junior people, for every 10 people who said they craved clearer direction from their manager, zero people said they would like their manager to be vaguer and less directive. So, get over the fear of being a micro-manager (and, make sure your team feels comfortable speaking up if you are are creepily hovering behind their laptops or getting all up in their work business.)

2. The Dunning-Kruger Effect: This incredible effect simply stated shows that newbies are overly confident in their ability to complete a task (and will underestimate the time it takes to do it). And, it also states that an expert will assume that a task that is easy for him to perform is also easy for others to perform. So when we, as a manager, assign a junior employee a task that we think is easy, quick to do, and doesn’t need explicit instructions, our biases may be getting in the way. We need to remind ourselves that the tasks we’ve done hundreds of times may not actually be easy, quick or self-explanatory for our people (and that our people will also erroneously think that they don’t need more time or a deeper explanation!)

So, consciously, we don't set expectations because we don't want to micromanage; unconsciously, we don't set expectations because we think our employees already know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Okay...before I keep rambling on about where else cognitive biases wreak havoc in our lives, let’s talk quickly about the how: how do we set clear expectations for our team members?

The Super-Simple Four-Pronged Approach to Setting Crystal-Clear Expectations

  1. What’s the objective or end goal?

  2. What does good look like?

  3. What’s the timing?

  4. What are examples (if possible)?

When you give your team an assignment, explicitly answer all of these questions. In fact, I would suggest writing down the answers to these questions to force you to truly articulate what you expect. If you can’t answer these questions...yikes….I would push you to think through if the assignment or task is necessary, and more fundamentally, if you have any idea at all what you want out of this work.

You skeptics or devil's advocates may ponder: "but, I want my people to be proactive, take the lead, and decide for themselves what the outcome looks like. I shouldn't be spoon-feeding everything." And to that I say...EXACTLY! Be clear about your expectations of proactivity, taking the lead, or if you want your team member to drive forward decisions. Tell your employee you expect them to be proactive (and define exactly what that means to you!).

So, friends.... as a first-time manager, set clear expectations for your people. Right when you think your expectations are clear enough - go back and make them even clearer. Push against the fear that you are being bossy or being a micro-manager. Your employees want to know what you expect and want to know what good looks like in your mind. And, if you aren’t clear about what you expect, expect to be disappointed.


  1. Often we don’t articulate what we expect from our employees; this leads to disappointment, frustration, and feeling like our employees are incompetent.

  2. We don’t set expectations because we’re afraid of being perceived as a micro-manager; and we overestimate our junior people’s abilities and competence.

  3. The solution is super simple: each time we assign a task or action, we should define what good looks like, articulate why the task is necessary and its overall objective, and state when we want the work completed. If possible, we should provide examples of similar work.

  4. We should continue to quickly provide feedback when expectations aren’t met and encourage our employees to speak up if they aren’t clear on an assignment.

* Power waddle: a power walk typically occurring after brunch, best illustrated by this video.


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John Pacheco
Jul 23, 2018

  Another clear and articulate lesson in management.  As an art teacher, I find these suggestions as relevant to education as they are to business. In teaching painting, there exists a tension between the need to be explicit (which can lead to over-instruction) and the need to let students figure it out for themselves.  Some want explicit direction, others want none at all. Both extremes are addressed in order to support students' development as independent and competent artists. As a teacher, perhaps unlike a business manager, I have the luxury of at least a full semester to initiate this process.


Jul 18, 2018

Communication continued...

Carnegie-Mellon published a study about software development “back in the day” regarding why projects fail and what was the success rate. I don't recall the success rate although it was quite low. However, success or failure of software projects were the result of leadership and communication – nothing technical. Essentially projects failed because expectations were not clearly defined - both within the software development team and between the team and the user.

Leadership often translates into taking responsibility for the project. My career progressed from programmer to software manager, but even as a manager I tested any major software project before it could be delivered to the user. Ultimately as the manager I was responsible for the software…


Jul 18, 2018

Micro-managing and setting expectations can easily become confused. Micro-managing is looking over an employee's shoulder, but managers should expect periodic updates from an employee - that periodicity should be part of the expectations - to ensure the employee's project is moving along.

In a broader sense setting expectation is part of bigger issue - communication.

My role in software development spanned

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