Creating Value—Whose Job Is It, Really?
December 10, 2017
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Unclear Expectations: the Simple Problem that Keeps Capable Employees from Doing Excellent Work

Back in the early ‘90s, Gallup asked American workers to rank the factors that had the strongest influence on their job performance. Of all the factors, there was one undisputed winner:

“I know what is expected of me.”

It sounds like a no-brainer, but the number-one reason why smart, capable people have problems on the job is because they don’t have clear expectations. If you’ve hired the right people but you’re still not seeing the results you want, keep reading.

What does it mean to have “clear expectations”?

At work, there are two kinds of clear expectations:

  1. Actions—knowing what your manager expects you to do.
  2. Experience—knowing what your day at work is going to be like.

Both of these have a strong impact on how people do their jobs, so every good manager needs to understand them. Let’s look at actions first.

Clarity in expectation: knowing what you’re supposed to do

In Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan introduce the concept of “non-negotiable activities.” These are the things that a person must do in order to succeed at their job. A poor understanding of these tasks can lead to poor performance on the job, but clarity can make all the difference.

One of my clients in the construction industry was having a problem with inconsistent performance by their superintendents. We decided to nail down, in unambiguous terms, what every superintendent had to do in order to do a good job—the nonnegotiable activities. We called this list the “Keys to Success” and then posted the list on the wall in every one of the company’s shops. The result was significant:

  • Superintendents started performing consistently across all of the shops because they knew exactly what was expected of them.
  • The manager could assess how the superintendents were doing based on a clear set of criteria for “good work.”
  • Customers were satisfied.  They experienced the same performance in each of the company’s geographies.

Ideally, managers should make the non-negotiable activities of a job clear before any job interviews take place (as I note in my book Getting the People Equation Right). But if you’re in the same boat as my client, here’s my advice:

  • Make sure your direct reports know exactly what activities are required and expected for success in the job.

If they—and you—know what they are supposed to do, it makes holding them accountable much easier.  

Now let’s look at the other side of clarity in expectation: experience.


Clarity in expectation: knowing what to expect in your day-to-day work experience

Even if people know what they are supposed to do and have the qualifications to do it well, they might not “fit” with the culture or people at their workplace. To illustrate, let’s look at a company we all know:

Amazon’s worker experience has gotten some mixed reviews. While the company outwardly values hard work and high achievement, a recent New York Times article described a punishing work environment where some employees cried at their desks. As harsh as that might sound, the real story is in the data.

 In 2015, researchers at the University of Kansas found that, overall, Amazon employees have high job satisfaction despite reporting relatively low work-life balance. In fact, some employees responded to criticism in the news by publicly praising the company and saying that the high-pressure, perform-or-die culture helped them to be better performers. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is unapologetic. Here’s what he said in a 1997 letter to shareholders:

“It’s not easy to work here. When I interview people, I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three.’ We are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy. We are incredibly fortunate to have this group of dedicated employees whose sacrifices and passion build”

By stating clearly and publicly that working at Amazon is difficult, Bezos helps potential hires to know exactly what they should expect to experience on the job. Knowing this, applicants can decide for themselves whether the high-stakes, high-performance culture is right for them.

My own experience with expectations at work

When I was a young CEO in the natural gas industry, we had a very valuable but demanding CFO on our team—he was a major contributor to our success. At one point, he was looking to hire a new controller and had two candidates for the job. Knowing his leadership style, I urged him to sit down with each candidate and tell them what it would be like to work for him. Here’s what happened. 

One candidate thanked him and turned down the offer. The other, by contrast, felt it would be a good working relationship. And so it was. 

Although I’d approach the situation differently now (giving more attention to coaching my CFO’s leadership style and creating a consistent employee experience company-wide), this situation really helped me to see how important it is to “know what you’re getting into” before taking a job. Giving our candidates realistic expectations allowed them both to make better, more informed decisions.

My advice for managers

If you’re struggling with inconsistent or sub-par work performance, take a step back and make sure your direct reports know exactly what you expect from them. Clearly state what you need them to do.

If you’re looking to add new people to your team, make expectations clear. Outline the non-negotiable activities of the job so that applicants can review them prior to an interview. Then, talk openly with your candidates about what it’s like to work at your company—and what it’s like to work for you.


Are you ready to help your executives and managers maximize their leadership potential? I’m ready to start that conversation today. Let’s talk!

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