How to set clear expectations in a way that builds trust and psychological safety across your direct team

As a leader, you’ve probably struggled or been challenged in a relationship with a direct report at some point. I hear leaders talking about personality differences or communication problems. These issues often mask the real problem – misaligned expectations.

Expectations can ruin relationships, especially when the expectations are not communicated, understood and agreed. 

It’s easy to make assumptions about what is reasonable to expect of someone. When they fall short, we justify and rationalise our judgement of them. Our ego loves being right!  

John, a coachee of mine, had a report Sylvia who was difficult character. Their relationship came to a head when Sylvia made a mistake and blamed John. The situation blew up and Sylvia resigned. John was self-aware enough to wonder how he might have contributed to the result. As I guided our conversation back to the beginning of their relationship, John recognised he hadn’t done enough to build the trust needed for open and honest two-way communication. In Brene Brown’s words, he chose comfort over courage. 

Making sure that you and your expectations are understood will benefit everyone

We often communicate expectations at the task level but forget about how they ‘chunk up’ and relate to and support expectations at a role and relationship level. Our relationships create the environment where it’s safe to speak up and challenge the status quo, have a go, make mistakes, ask for help and learn without fear of judgment or repercussion. 

Are you and your direct reports aligned on these levels of expectation:

 1.      What you can expect of me and my leadership

For example, when someone new starts in your team, do you share with them your leadership style: who you are as a leader, how you like to work, what you care about and what you hold yourself accountable for?

 2.      What we can expect of each other

Have you both aligned on how your relationship works in a way that works for you both? For example, before I start coaching anyone, we talk about the standards for how we will work and succeed together which includes things like being honest, curious and willing to learn outside our comfort zone.

 3.      What I can expect of you

If you asked each of your reports “What does success with me look like for you?”, would they able to answer this question easily?

How you articulate the performance benchmarks (eg: how their performance is measured) and behaviours (ie: living the values) in the context of your leadership and what that means for them being part of your team, is really important.

Once you’ve established the above expectations which set the environment for how work gets done, it makes it much easier to align on expectations relating to tasks, projects and milestones etc.

Bringing it all together

This framework can help you be intentional and consistent in how you lead and show up for others, and how you teach others to show up around you. 

Your team want to do well and succeed. Aligned expectations play a big part in people knowing how they can succeed with you. Not only that, you’ll build trust and respect in your relationships that will build teamwork and engagement, as well as earn the right to give constructive feedback to help your team grow.

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