November 08, 2021

Clear expectations are the secret ingredient to happier teams

It’s been said again and again that communication is key in our ever-evolving world of work. Leaders are expected to be transparent, vulnerable, and intentional in how they communicate. Clear communication isn’t as simple as a one-time conversation, though. Humans are already wildly complex, but add in power dynamics, hierarchies, fears, and anxieties, and the picture of effective communication quickly turns murky. 

Jennifer Howell, a Bravely Pro, leadership consultant, and executive coach, shares insights and helpful tools for navigating workplace communication to create clear expectations between employees and leaders. Setting clear expectations early with new hires and maintaining continued transparency are crucial to running efficient teams and managing employee stress and burnout. 

“Employees come to me seeking ways to be successful in their roles. But wouldn’t it be nice if companies were telling their people how to be successful?” 

Jennifer Howell: Bravely Pro, Executive Coach, and Leadership Consultant

Organizations have a responsibility to their employees to clearly communicate the expectations of any given role in the onboarding process. Then, they must continue a sustained level of transparency and communication as that role changes and priorities evolve. 

The majority of organizations experience shifts and changes in direction or goals relatively frequently. Leaders have a responsibility to communicate those changes at every level to ensure clarity. For example, there might be an all-hands meeting revealing new priorities and a shift in direction. Still, a communication gap occurs in parsing how an individual’s role will be affected or how their goals may need to shift on a more granular level. The organization has a responsibility to ensure that its employees receive the information and understand when metrics for success have shifted. 

Clear Expectations + Good Boundaries = Happy Teams 

If it’s up to the organization to offer clear expectations, the employee’s responsibility is to keep good boundaries. Jennifer describes a boundary as “an invisible shield that protects us psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally.” Leaders are responsible for creating a psychologically safe environment where employees can speak up when their boundaries are crossed or when something is unclear. When employees know their limits and can clearly express them to maintain homeostasis or manage their stress, they can proactively protect their boundaries. If only it were that easy! “We often don’t know when a boundary is crossed until we don’t feel good, we’re burnt out or stressed.” 

Creating feedback models that serve as consistent touchpoints to check in and ensure that both parties are heard can feed a culture of transparency and trust. Jennifer shares her feedback model below, noting that it’s called “SHARE” because you’re “sharing information — feedback doesn’t have to be such a high-anxiety task!”

  1. Set your Intention 
  2. Honor your relationship 
  3. Articulate what you want and need
  4. Relate it to a common goal
  5. Express that wish, goal, or expectation 

Jennifer suggests weekly one-on-ones for productivity updates to ensure the manager and employee’s priorities are aligned and monthly one-on-ones for higher-level check-ins on an employee’s career goals and engagement levels. These monthly check-ins also serve as a time to make sure they’re getting the support they need. By finding consistent times to check in with each other and creating opportunities for bi-directional communication, leaders can support employees in understanding what’s expected of them and therefore creating clear pathways for that individual’s success in their role. 

Setting Clear Expectations Requires Vulnerability 

Priorities shift for all sorts of reasons, so how does your team respond to new information? How can we ensure that expectations aren’t lost in translation? Jennifer points back to psychological safety and the ability to speak up: “As a direct report, I need to be able to say, ‘this is what I heard, is that right?” Speaking up requires vulnerability and a willingness to be wrong. Employees must first feel safe enough to raise concerns when something isn’t being communicated clearly, and leaders can only build trust over time. People need evidence that they won’t be reprimanded for erring on the side of asking more questions. “This also requires vulnerability from the manager. If the manager doesn’t know, they need to say so and commit to following up when they have the answer.” For both parties, it’s essential to speak up the moment communication becomes muddled.

Define Your Unspoken Rules

Many companies talk a big game about bringing “your whole self” to work, but fail to put any guardrails or boundaries around what they mean by this hot button phrase. Consider upgrading your code of conduct to a set of agreements that employees can participate in co-creating. Jennifer emphasizes the importance of “communicating those guidelines in advance. Your organization can’t document every single possibility, and it gets tricky, but this comes back to constant communication and building the psychological safety to bring up issues as they arise and hold space for a conversation.” 

Leaders might notice a hesitancy in their employees to speak up as stress and burnout continue to rise. Leading with vulnerability and compassion is essential to establishing clear pathways for communication and expectation-setting. “Managers are focused on getting it right and controlling the outcome. Leaders are focused on doing the right thing and collaborating with individual contributors.” Amidst the world’s current chaos, we need courageous leaders willing to be vulnerable to set clear expectations and build trust with their employees. We have an opportunity to develop the necessary leadership skills to continue along the path to a more compassionate world of work. 

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