How to Get Aligned on Expectations

Last updated: October 12, 2021
Estimated reading time: 3.5 min

You’ve probably noticed that we talk a lot about setting and aligning on expectations. Setting and aligning on expectations is the starting point for all things management—whether you’re hiring, setting goals, delegating projects, or evaluating performance. Expectations create the foundation—when expectations aren’t aligned, your foundation will be shaky, leading to compounding problems down the road.

So how exactly do you go about it? There are three simple steps:

1. Make the implicit explicit.

Take the invisible expectations and assumptions that you have in your head and articulate them. The things that may feel crystal clear to you might not even be on the other person’s radar. It’s better to surface those expectations on the front end when you’re still defining success than mid-stream when you’re fixing mistakes or course-correcting, or on the back end, when you’re evaluating the work.

Here are a few things to be explicit about:

  • The definition of success. Use our delegation worksheet to talk through what success will look like for a project. Share examples if you have any. For projects that are new, complicated, or that you’ll be less involved with, specifying what you don’t want can provide helpful guardrails to define success as well.
  • Context. If there are potential challenges to avoid, available resources, people to reach out to, a history of success or failure, share them as a heads up.
  • Preferences, traditions, and requirements. Thinking through your preference and traditions is especially important when communicating expectations that have more to do with approach, or the way that work happens (see: Setting Expectations for How Staff Approach Their Work). Remember that it’s okay to have preferences, but you need to name them (and ideally, be open to different perspectives—more on that later).
  • What you’re not sure about. If there’s anything you feel unclear about, share it. At best, it can be an invitation for the person to partner with you to get more clear. At the very least, it explains any vagueness or uncertainty you may be expressing.

Making the implicit explicit is also a matter of managing equitably. The more you and the other person diverge in terms of identity, life experience, culture, and perspective or the more they deviate from your organization’s dominant culture, the less likely they are to intuit your expectations. Making the implicit explicit helps bridge the gap (leading to a stronger relationship between you and them) and increases the chances that they will meet or exceed expectations (leading to better results for your team). And let’s be clear—results and relationships aren’t the only things at stake for your staff member personally. The more likely that their performance is evaluated positively, the more they will benefit from—among other things—higher compensation, development opportunities, and a sense of feeling valued. The opposite is also true—when you don’t make the implicit explicit, those most likely to suffer the consequences of a poor performance evaluation are the people on your team who are the most marginalized.

2. Seek and incorporate new perspectives.

Delegation should be a conversation, not a dictation. In addition to sharing what’s in your head, you should also probe for their thoughts and perspective.

Invite their input with these questions:

  • What do you think about what I’ve shared so far?
  • Is there anything I’ve shared that you disagree with or have a different take on?
  • What am I missing?
  • Is there anything that you think we should change about this plan?
  • Based on your context and experience, what’s at least one part of what I just shared that you’d push back on?

Note that these questions focus on surfacing disagreement and dissent. One thing that healthy, resilient relationships (especially managerial ones) have in common is that there’s enough psychological safety for different—sometimes conflicting—ideas and opinions to be expressed. If you’re the manager, it’s on you to welcome and invite difference.

Perspective-seeking is best paired with receptivity. It’s not enough to ask for input if you never do anything with it. By seeking and incorporating others’ viewpoints, you might be able to create new expectations that lead to better results. Even if you aren’t able to incorporate the other person’s ideas immediately, it might help influence your approach to working with them in the future. In any case, learning more about someone else’s perspective ultimately helps you build a stronger relationship.

3. Get aligned.

Once you’ve each shared what’s in your head, it’s time to get aligned on expectations. In a delegation, this looks like getting clear on what success looks like, why the project or assignment is important when it needs to be completed by, what resources are available, how you’ll be checking in, and other information about how they should approach the assignment. Feel free to use our delegation worksheet to capture the expectations you’ve agreed to!

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