How to Write Real Performance Expectations that Make a Difference

Two business women discussing a project.
••• Ezra Bailey / Getty Images

All employees want to know what’s expected of them, and any manager should be able to answer this question. Getting clear on the expectations for a job is required to write a job description, advertise for a position, employee selection, employee orientation, goal setting, feedback and coaching, and annual performance reviews.

There was a 2003 study conducted by the Learning and Development Roundtable which found that explaining performance expectations had the highest return on investment of any manager-led employee development activity. Higher than providing feedback, coaching, giving advice, or individual development plans.

The study also found that managers who are very effective at employee development can outperform their peers by up to 25 percent.

So, explaining performance expectations is important to employees, it improves productivity, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

So then why are so many employees still being kept in the dark when it comes to figuring out what’s important to their managers? Why won’t managers do it?

Management Paradox

A CEO was getting very frustrated with one of his senior managers. He was so fed up; he was about to fire him. But before he did, he felt he should give him one last chance and hired an executive coach to work with the manager at the cost of $10,000.

After explaining the situation to the coach, the coach asked him to write down a list of expectations that he had for this manager. He thanked him, and said he would do his best, and left an invoice for 50 percent of the total bill.

The first thing the coach did when he met with the manager was to give him the list. The manager was amazed – he had never seen anything like that before. He was able to figure out what he was doing wrong and what he needed to do to please his boss and be successful. He thanked the coach and went on his way.

Three months later, the coach met with the CEO to review progress. The CEO was ecstatic with the manager’s performance – a complete turnaround. He asked the coach, “How did you do it?” The coach told the CEO he simply gave the manager the list of expectations and gave him an invoice for the rest of the bill.

The CEO, with a look of shock and anger, said, “You SOB. I’m not paying you – you cheated!”

OK, so maybe the story is a bit of an exaggeration. But maybe not.

Setting Expectations

So why don’t more managers do it? Is it that, like a lot of management and HR practices, we make it sound more complicated than it needs to be? If you’ve ever sat through a lesson on how to write SMART goals, you might come to that conclusion too.

It really doesn't have to be. Here is a simple, yet effective method:

  1. Set aside 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. Turn off your phone, your email, and shut your door.
  2. Take out a blank pad of paper and a pen, or open up a Word document.
  3. Think about what you would look for in an ideal employee if you were hiring someone tomorrow. Jot those things down.
  4. Think back to all of the performance improvement discussions you’ve had with employees over the last few years. Jot the opposite of those things down. For example, if the discussion was about poor customer service, write, “Provide outstanding customer service.”
  1. Think about all of the things that are important to you that you have not discussed with employees, but you have implied. Add to your list.
  2. Think of your best employees – what has made them so good? What does their best work look like and how do they do it? You got it, more for your list.
  3. Take a look at the generic performance criteria that is provided by HR on the company performance appraisal form. For each item, describe in your own words what “good” looks like for your employees.

At the end of 30 minutes or sooner, you should have no problem filling up at least one sheet of paper.

Whatever you do, don’t go back and sanitize it. It is not an official HR job description that has to pass EEO and department of labor standards. It’s simply a list of stuff that anyone who has worked for you for five years has probably figured out. Or perhaps they haven’t. What about new employees? Why should they have to take five years?

I wonder what would happen if you shared that list of expectations at a team meeting or with employees individually. What harm could it do? You could also use the list as a way to onboard new employees so that they have their very own new manager secret decoder ring.

Even better – what if you asked your employees for a list of what they expected from you for them to meet your expectations and be successful?

Now that might be an eye-opening discussion!