The Power of Clear Standards and Expectations

We are more likely to deliver flawlessly when we are clear about what we expect from ourselves and others—and understand what others expect of us.

Directives that are vague or waffling, on the other hand, lead to confusion and frustration, opening the door to pervasive excuses.

There are two reasons why we fail to clearly articulate what we want and expect. Either we don’t set aside time to consider and articulate our expectations–what we need/want. (We may even assume others implicitly know what we expect.) Or, no matter how much time we spend articulating expectations, we haven’t dug deep enough to recognize why they matter to us (standards).

Any relationship (personal or professional) comes with expectations for how to interact. For example, we may expect a person to be open to and respectful of our point of view. Because people’s behaviors and mindsets may differ from ours, however, we may be left frustrated or confused. Fortunately, there is a solution: Be clear about expectations (the other party’s and your own) in order to engage more effectively.

I, for example, grew up in Sweden, where punctuality is valued, and you are expected to show up on time or early. Tardiness is culturally frowned upon. If you throw a dinner party in Sweden, you can expect guests to arrive precisely on time. In the U.S., the custom is to allow the host at least 10 extra minutes for last-minute preparations (a social gaffe for Swedes).

When I moved to Latin America, I learned that time was a fluid concept. “On time” could be any time within a given hour. Working in the Middle East really stretched my time concept. A 9:00 a.m. meeting might not begin in earnest until 10:30 a.m., following coffee and networking.

Regardless of where I live or work, my native standard for punctuality has never changed. Being on time is connected to my core value: “effective use of time, talents, and resources.” My expectations, however, have changed to accommodate cultural differences.

Living and working in Cost Rica left me somewhat frustrated about time. So I decided to clarify my expectations with friends and clients, telling them: (1) I would always strive to be on time; (2) I would alert them if I were running late; and (3) I would allow them just 15 minutes of what we in Costa Rica call “Tico-time.” If they were more than 15 minutes late, I would go about my day without hard feelings or resentment. Many of my colleagues told me they appreciated my clarity and respected my willingness to meet them “halfway.” Often, they arrived “on time,” and even when they didn’t, we respected one another’s differences.

Standards and expectations don’t need to be “all or nothing” or “my way or the highway.” When accompanied by the knowledge of who you are as a person, manager, or leader, most people value and respect them. If our standards and values are consistently violated or disrespected, we can opt to remove ourselves from those situations or individuals by restating our expectations and confirming agreement/disagreement.

I once ended a business relationship with a large corporate client because my contact person kept violating our upfront agreement and clearly stated standards regarding professional fees. In spite of our agreed-upon terms, they kept pushing for a discount. I finally said that, if they didn’t respect our non-negotiable no-discounts standard, I would end the relationship. They promised to stop—until the next time. True to my word, I ended the engagement. While it was a tough financial pill to swallow, I’ve never regretted the decision. In my experience, people who ignore clearly stated expectations, lack boundaries, which can open up a Pandora’s box of other issues that are “non-negotiables” for me.

When defined standards and non-negotiable expectations are tied to our values, people find this level of clarity invigorating. They know what to expect and move into action effortlessly. They respect that we’ve taken the time to think deeply about what matters to us and why.

Effective managers spend time clearly articulating their standards, so the people reporting to and interacting with them quickly understand what is expected. Take, for example, the department head who recognized that office gossip was fostering a borderline toxic-work environment.

Tapping into their standards and expectations, the department head committed to turning things around. They communicated the standard: Operating a “gossip-free work environment.” They shared the expectation: Venting was limited to 15 minutes—provided a positive action step was taken to resolve the issue. They announced that intentionally harmful gossip was terms for dismissal.

To eliminate misunderstandings, the department head defined gossip as, “information shared with the intent of furthering secrecy, harm, or common enemy intimacy” (excerpted from Brene Brown’s lecture on the Anatomy of Trust). The team collaborated on a set of agreed-upon actions to take and conversations to hold in response to future gossiping. Within a few weeks, gossip had been irradicated, and everyone commented on how content and engaged they felt. Armed with the option to vent (within limits), employees acknowledged how hurtful the once-gossipy environment had been.

You don’t have to be a manager or leader to clearly articulate standards and expectations. The process can be applied to any relationship. Coupled with our “non-negotiables” and “upfront agreements,” we can set any relationship up for the best possible outcomes and eliminate unnecessary miscommunications or conflicts.

EXERCISE:

Make a list of your standards and expectations. If you find it helpful, you may want to read the “non-negotiable” and “upfront agreement” articles to dig deeper into why certain things matter to you more than others.

Start with standards already evident to you, even if you haven’t previously articulated them. Examples may include punctuality, consistency, openness to critical feedback, strong work ethic, “can-do attitude,” etc.

Check which standards apply both personally and professionally. These tend to be especially powerful.

Pick your most important standard and create an expectation accordingly. For example, your standard/value may be “to foster environments where people feel included.” Expectations may include, “all meetings must allocate 10 minutes at the end for team members to share or ask questions.” “We ask for feedback from at least one contrary perspective before making important decisions.” “When we hire a new team member, at least three people with diverse experiences and backgrounds offer feedback about the person’s fit before making a final decision.”

Consider sharing your standards and expectations with a peer, mentor, or coach for feedback prior to sharing them with your team.

Some standards and expectations change or evolve with our personal growth. Some don’t. Our task is to figure out how to communicate them effectively, providing clarity to those around us.