The value of providing expectations: Performance feedback proliferates and becomes more artful

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I’ve written several articles lately about providing expectations to your team on how to perform.  These articles describe how to increase the artfulness of providing expectations or setting expectations for behavior.  For example, the expectations should:

– reflect team input

– be set earlier rather than later

– include standards of performance where documented

–provided general guardrails of behavior

– should attempt to tie into the larger strategy

I’ve also written articles about how providing performance feedback to your team as a key management skill.  Now let’s take a look at an example of how providing expectations can help you in providing performance feedback.

1.   Performance feedback you provide happens more naturally, immediately and specifically

If you have provided expectations for how the team works together, and the guardrails of behavior are established in some form, you now have a context and standard of performance to start any performance feedback discussion when you see the need for someone to change what they are doing.  Let’s take a look at a performance feedback example:

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The art of providing expectations: Tie the expectations to the larger strategy

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Providing expectations for how the team operates is an important skill for any manager or leader.  It doesn’t matter what level of manager you are, this is an important early step to establishing yourself as a manager and leader, and to set the right tone that reflects your values as a manager and your team’s values for how it executes its duties.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed the following artful elements of providing expectations:

Getting team input

Establishing expectations early

Using existing performance criteria for specific tasks

Providing general guidelines for behavior

Today I’ll discuss how to tie in the act of providing expectations with the larger strategy of the team and organization.

Providing expectations is different from defining the larger strategy of a team.  The larger strategy of a team or group dictates more what the team is working on and the resources it devotes to working on it to create a result greater than the individual work items.  The strategy should indicate what it is the team is actually producing.  The expectations should be consistent with the strategy and be the next layer down that translates more closely to the behaviors you expect and the areas the team should be working on.

So the expectations should feed into the larger strategy of the team or group.  If you don’t have a strategy, perhaps it’s time to get one!  It’s kind of a big topic, but let’s try to tackle it!

Let’s take a look at some examples of expectations that feed into a team or org strategy:

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The art of providing expectations: Describe the general guidelines of behavior

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Providing expectations for how the team operates is an important skill for any manager or leader.  It doesn’t matter what level of manager you are, this is an important early step to establishing yourself as a manager and leader, and to set the right tone that reflects your values as a manager and your team’s values for how it executes its duties.

In my previous post, I describe two aspects of providing expectations: Get team input and provide expectations early rather than reactively.  In today’s post, I’ll discuss another aspect of providing expectations:  Set guidelines – the more you can do this, the more artful the expectation providing.

In discussing the performance management part of being a manager, I advocate for specific and immediate feedback, using behavior-based language. That’s for providing feedback.  Providing feedback comes after providing expectations.

When providing expectations, you are preemptively identifying the course you want the team to go on.  However, you can’t anticipate all events, all behaviors, and all specifics.  (If you can predict specifics, then check out this article on letting performance criteria be known.)  Outside of the repeating tasks, in the expectation-providing arena, this is your chance to identify more broadly what the team should focus on and how it should provide its focus.  These should be considered guidelines or even “guardrails”.

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The art of providing expectations: Get input and the earlier the better

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The Manager by Designsm blog seeks to provide great people management tips and awesome team management tips.  An important skill that managers need to have is the act of providing expectations for how the team and individuals operate.  In my previous article, I discussed how it is necessary for a manager to provide expectations for the repeatable, established tasks. But this does not describe all of the tasks that many teams are expected to perform.

Many times teams, in addition to the repeatable work, are doing something for the first time, and must go through iterations to get it right and get the work done.  These are situations where the work does not have an established, repeatable rhythm, but is filled with problem-solving, new ideas and creative efforts.  So in addition to the repeatable tasks, let’s talk about providing expectations for forging forward into unknown territory, which increasingly describes many work teams!

Because something is new, this does not mean that a manager does not need to set expectations.  Instead, the manager must provide expectations on the level of how the team works together to achieve the goals set out for them.


So when I say “providing expectations,” I’m describing the act of establishing both the “what” the team on works on and “how” the team works together.  It is the act of setting the baseline understanding of what the team does and how it does it.  And once the repeating tasks are established and the criteria for quality are determined, these expectations can then be provided.

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The art of providing expectations: If there are established performance criteria, then make them known!

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The Manager by Design blog seeks to provide great people and team management tips.  An important skill that managers need to have is the act of providing expectations for how the team and individuals operate.  In a previous post, I provided examples of providing expectations to your team.  It today’s post, I start a series of tips on how to better improve how managers provide expectations to their employees.  I call it the art of providing expectations.

We’ll start with the basics:  If there is a specific, established performance standard for something your staff must do, then make this known. 

Here’s what I’m talking about.  Let’s say that there are basic items that your staff must do and to a standard of quality that your staff must perform on an ongoing basis.  You need to provide expectations for how these tasks are done and to what level of quality.  Of course this is done all the time in many organizations, but there are many orgs that newly formed, fast growing, or simply disorganized enough where this has yet to be done.  Let’s look at some examples of these:

In an IT department, it could be requirements gathering, and the document that is produced in the process.

In a strategy development group, the development process of the strategy (i.e., who needs to be discussed with and approval process), and the actual strategy document.

In a business development group, the core elements of a contract that must be performed and following the process for getting them processed. 

Other basic expectations of behavior could be the following:  When to show up for work (if this is important in your org), response time to inquiries from customers, when status updates are due, to whom, and in what format. 

So many things. . .  The common denominator for these “basic tasks” are that they are ongoing, repeatable, and proven that they can be performed by the average performer on your staff. 

1.      Identify what the basic things you expect anyone on your staff to do.

So think about the things on your staff that you expect them to do that are ongoing, repeatable, and proven to be able to be done.   Now, is this documented anywhere?  Or is there an implicit understanding that these things are performed?  If you haven’t made this clear to your staff that these things are done on an ongoing basis, now is the time to start.

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Basic skill for a manager: Reinforce what was trained in training

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In my previous post, I make the case that the manager is the most high impact trainer in any organization.  The manager has the ability to subvert anything that was trained merely through one comment or gesture.

But what about the opposite?  What if the manager reinforces what was covered in training? What happens then?

The answer: The employee performs according to the training.

Let’s assume, for now, that the training actually has something valuable in it.  That the people who created the training did the research, know what the proper performance ought to be, and trained a great class designed to help employees on the job. 

The employee leaves the training and now has to apply it to the work environment.

Here are the things that the manager can do to reinforce the training:

1. Ask the employee what he learned in training

How often has this happened?  Not enough!  If an employee goes to a training class, industry conference, safety briefing, or any other “learning”, this should be the first course of action.  It is unlikely that the manager attends all of the training that the employees attend, so now the employee has to share the content with the manager.  It’s the manager’s job to listen.

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Managers are the most high impact trainers in an organization

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In recent articles, I’ve explored how a manager’s subtle or not-so-subtle behaviors can influence how a team operates. Think about this – the manager, through the subtle power of suggestion or through overt directive action, can shape how a team performs, make a difference as to whether the team succeed or fails, establish whether it is a good working environment or not, and contribute to whether the organization is successful or not.

This is because the manager is the most high impact trainer in the organization, and should be treated as such.

Many organizations have robust training departments.  These departments might offer a series of training classes on technical skills, soft skills, legal compliance, team building, job safety, and the like.  These classes might last as long as week or be as short as one-hour.  Increasingly, “eLearning” offerings offer a tutorial on how to do something or stay in compliance.  In many cases, these training organizations track whether or not the employees have taken a series of classes, and it is tracked with great robustness on the employee’s record in what is called a Learning Management System (LMS).

But note that these classes last for a finite period of time. The class, no matter how interactive or high impact learning the design may be, ends.  The employee always leaves the training arena, whether it was eLearning or classroom, and then goes back to the job.

Then what happens?  It’s now entirely dependent on what the manager reinforces or punishes.

Whatever cues the manager makes, no matter how subtle, will determine whether the employee will apply what was discussed, trained, practiced and reinforced in the training class.

Let’s look at one example.

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Managers should provide focus on what’s going right and reward those behaviors

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In the last few articles, I’ve been discussing managers’ too-frequent negative reactions to problems.  The “red” stuff on a scorecard, for example.  They will act surprised and/or angry.  As I pointed out, this is not the manager’s job to act surprised and angry when problems arise.

But let’s say that the problems aren’t the most important thing – maybe the more important thing has a status of “green” on a report or scorecard.   If you ignore the stuff that is going well, you are missing opportunities to be a great manager.

The green stuff – things that are not problems – these should be reinforced positively.  Rather than focus on the stuff needing improvement, talk about what is going well. Discuss specifically what it was that the employees did to earn that green status.  Identify the actions taken, and call out why this is a good thing.

1. You’ll discover who is doing well and why

You may discover in this conversation that people on your team did many things that prevented problems in the first place.  You may learn methods that could be used elsewhere on your team.

You may identify high performers who create “green status” without any drama.  Many managers descend into a dynamic where they are close to only those who are reacting to problems – the firefighters – at the detriment of those who prevented the fires from starting in the first place.

Focusing on the green items on the status report is a chance surface the people on your team who get the work done right the first time.  They are the ones who try to prevent drama rather than create drama.

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What to do when you see a status or metric as “Red”

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In my previous article, I identified how a manager’s subtle actions can turn into not-so-subtle disasters. The subtle action is reacting negatively to “red” on a status report.  The reaction is that employee will hide the “bad news” from you.  Bad management and bad results ensue.

So let’s talk about how a manager can think through why seeing “red” on a status report (or receiving any other bad news) should not be responded to with anger, yelling or “just solve it.”  We know that this creates a vicious cycle, so let’s identify some things that a manager should consider and say before sending marching orders to solve the problem.

1. It is entirely appropriate that there be items that are “red.”

Consider the following reasons:

The “red” item may be the de-prioritized item.

The “red” item is a new item and is being worked on to get to the point of “green.”

The “red” item, if it is on a scorecard, may be something with very low numbers, significance or sample size, and the “red” status isn’t as significant as others.

The “red” item may be the item that is calibrated to be in the worst shape of all the items, thus earning the status of red.  That is, as the lowest scoring metric, it is by definition the worst, and is therefore red.

In other words, it is inevitable and desirable that there be “red” items.

Instead of getting mad, the appropriate response to these scenarios is to determine the significance and priority of the “red” items.  Ask whether these “red” items are the high priority items.

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