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Expectations and Leadership: Dont Make them Guess

Exploring how to make clear and fair expectations for employees.

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One weekend, three brothers were building a new deck at one of the brother’s home. (One of the three brothers is co-author of this column.) Running out of weekend to finish the project, tensions started to build as reality began to set in. Then, it started to rain (we are not making this up!)—slowing progress even more. The brother with the least construction experience was working as fast as he could placing joists to support the deck. Unfortunately, he was not performing the task in the manner and to the satisfaction of the most experienced brother, who eventually exploded, "Come on, can’t you read my mind?!"

No, the inexperienced brother being called out could not read minds. And, neither can your employees. When it comes to your expectations of them, they know what you want only when you have clearly communicated with them. Are expectations important? We have a friend who likes to say "discontent is relative to expectations." If you and your employees are not on the same page with respect to expectations, trouble is brewing. At the same time, we find many feed and grain managers, for a variety of reasons, don’t take the time or go to the trouble of framing a set of meaningful expectations for employees. We will take a look at this important component of leadership and management in this month’s column.

Importance of Expectations

If asked, "what do you expect from your employees," how would you answer? If some someone asked your employees, "what does your supervisor expect of you?" How would they answer? These are useful questions to think a bit about. If clear and mutually agreed to expectations don’t pop into your mind immediately, you are not alone. Robert Schaffer, in his September 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Four Mistakes Leaders Keep Making” labeled “failure to set proper expectations” as behavior trap number 1 on his list.

Why do managers fail to set clear expectations? Schaffer argues one reason is anxiety: “being clear requires considerable thought and is much more difficult than issuing general statements such as ‘We need to speed up payments, so get off your ….’ Managers may worry if they set specific targets their people can’t achieve, they too will look like failures. They may fear being viewed as unreasonable ogres…” Other reasons may include the assumption that "my employees know the job, they know what is expected, I don’t need to tell them." Or managers may simply be running hard enough that they don’t make time to communicate expectations, even though they believe it is important. Finally, there is the "I walked five miles to school uphill both ways" argument—no one ever provided me with clear expectations, why do I need to provide them to my employees?

Regardless of the reason, we agree with Schaffer and see a lack of clear expectations as a drag on productivity, the source of much supervisor-employee conflict, and a potential cause for retention problems in a feed and grain firm.

Expectations as Ground Rules

For some of your employees, especially those in jobs with well-defined responsibilities, such as a truck driver or feed mill hand, you may well capture most expectations in an employee manual or company policy book. Here, you likely lay out some minimum expectations on the importance of coming to work on time, staying clear of drug and alcohol use, following all safety protocols, and so on. You may also cover something like company values, how you want customers treated, how you want other employees treated, etc. These kinds of expectations become ground rules for your organization.

Most feed and grain firms of any size have such an employee manual or policy book. But, if you do not, it is probably time to put one together—capturing basic ground rules will help you set minimal expectations clearly, and is very important when bringing new employees on board. Note these last points are true only if these employee manuals/policy books get used. New employees need to thoroughly understand your ground rules as part of their on-boarding process. Supervisors must insure the ground rules are followed—look the other way when employees ignore basic ground rules around work habits, attitudes and safety and the performance of most organizations will begin unwinding.

Mutually-agreed On Expectations

When you move into setting expectations for managerial/supervisory positions, the task is more challenging but even more important. Here, there can be a tendency to assume the individual "knows what is expected" and if they don’t, they should not be in the role. Or, the expectations may be broad and vague such as "I am not a micromanager—just run the unit and keep problems off my desk." You may well have supervisors and managers who don’t need any more guidance than that. But, we would argue even for high-performing managers and supervisors who have experience in their roles, clarity of expectations can be a powerful leadership tool—and a source of frustration if they are not in place.

Beyond the issues we started this article with—frustration over the fact the employee isn't doing "what I want them to do in the way I want it done"—a lack of clear expectations at this level likely means lost opportunity. If you are going to develop clear expectations for your managerial and supervisory employees, it means you and the employee have had a conversation about what are the most important things in their area of responsibility and prioritized some of these as goals or issues to be addressed in the future. Once these expectations are clearly defined, you and the manager/supervisor know what the priorities are and what is to be accomplished over some future period of time.

An example is in order. You have a manager running a branch facility for your organization. Sales/grain volume have been a bit sluggish, but the facility is efficient and has a very strong safety record. Turnover among the operations crew is low and this group in the plant/driving trucks seems high performing. You spend some time with the branch manager talking about the sales/grain volume issues.The issues seem to revolve around turnover in the sales force and the lack of experience of the current sales staff. Some of the problem looks to be driven by a new promotion/program launched by a competitor. After discussion, you and the manager agree to several action items:1) she will take a more proactive approach on relationship building with a few of the largest accounts and prospects; 2) you will provide some additional training to the sales staff; 3) she will look into some new promotions/programs to address what the competitor is up to; and 4) she will work to make sure the location’s top-notch operations team is used as a point of difference with customers.

Contrast this set of expectations with the "I am not a micro-manager—just run your unit and keep problems off my desk" approach. Now you and the manager know what the next steps are—there is no ambiguity as to what she is to work on. She has the benefit of your insight and experience as she works to turn the sales issue around. Together, you have explored solutions for the most important issue facing the branch. Now you won’t be stewing about why she is not doing something about the sales issue—she will be. That said, if she does not address the sales issue/does not follow-through on your agreed upon action plan, you have what you need for further coaching or disciplinary actions if required.

More on this below, but good leadership means you just don’t set these expectations and forget about them. You have a responsibility to check in with your manager, find out how she is doing, what issues she is running into. You may well learn things that will help her make adjustments to the plans or avert a problem in the making. At the absolute minimum, the very fact you are communicating with her about your expectations means they will stay top of mind for her. This reinforcement is key if expectations are to be acted on.

Expectations and Training

Beyond insuring that you and your employee agree on the path forward, getting agreement on expectations may help you identify skill/capability gaps with your employee. Once you have agreed on what needs to be done, then you can ask the question "is my employee prepared to take this on?" Does the employee have the experience, the training, the skill set to successfully meet my expectations?

Let’s go back to our example. You and your manager have agreed to four specific actions to take to address the sales issue. As you reflect on the actions and think about your employee, it becomes increasingly clear to you that she is an absolutely first-class operations manager (and it shows with the quality of her team). However, she does not have a lot of marketing/sales in her background, and no real training. After some additional discussion, you agree that she will attend a couple of sales and marketing professional development programs in the coming year. In addition, you will identify a mentor in your organization that she can use to bounce ideas off of—someone that has the sales and marketing skills that are not part of her background. This person will be available for coaching/asking questions when she has some challenges on the marketing and sales front. The point here is that you want to both set clear expectations, then do all you possibly can to help the employee meet those expectations successfully.

Expectations and Performance Reviews

Building on a point made earlier, clear expectations make for much more productive performance reviews. In the process of establishing expectations, you have clarified the performance you expect. During the performance review, at whatever time interval you use, you can assess whether or not goals were met. You can have a conversation about what went right and what went wrong. You can have a conversation about what is next. Instead of a vague and general conversation about "how things are going" or even no conversation because you have nothing to talk about, your time can be spent exploring very specifically whether or not the employee met your mutually-agreed to expectations for the period. Given how frustrating performance reviews can sometimes be for employees and supervisors, the benefits of turning these conversations into productive activities should not be overlooked.

Seven Deadly Sins of Setting Expectations

As you reflect on how you work with your employees at every level—Schaffer offered the following list of "Seven Deadly Sins of Setting Expectations" that are useful to keep in mind:

  1. Establishing too many goals
  2. Not requiring a plan for how and when goals will be achieved
  3. Failing to push for significant improvement for fear people are already overwhelmed
  4. Not assigning clear one-person accountability for each goal
  5. Signaling an unspoken "if you possibly can" at the end of a statement of expectation
  6. Accepting reverse assignments (“Sure boss, I can get it done if you will see to it that…”)
  7. Stating goals in ways that may not be definable or measurable

We would specifically highlight number 1, number 3, number 5, and number 6. Put too many expectations on top of employees and you will likely do nothing more than confuse them. Even the best employees don’t want to end up asking "where do I start?" Number 3 can be a real trap—employees may well feel overwhelmed because you have not been clear with priorities and trying to do everything can certainly lead to frustration and exasperation. Numbers 5 and 6 can be also be issues—basically turning your expectations into guidelines or suggestions. Clarity is what you are after, and implying that you want them to get to something “if they can,” or offering to make a trade for something else you need done won’t clarify anything.


There is clearly some "pay now/pay later" when it comes to establishing expectations. Clear expectations take work up front in thinking through what you really want and need from employees, in getting to some mutually agreed upon expectations, in revisiting these expectations to insure progress is being made. However, the "pay later" element is very real as well. Employees can’t read your mind, and (hopefully) all of them will be doing something for you and your grain and feed firm. Taking the time to make sure your employees have a very clear view of what success looks like will go a long way toward making sure that success is realized in your organization.

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