Set expectations rather than manage performance
As leaders, we are in pursuit of high performance. If the key role of any leader is to inspire others to work with us to move something from A to B, the differentiator is that we do so optimally.
High performance makes our jobs as leaders so much easier, doesn’t it? When we have high performing individuals and groups, there is greater self-starting, problem solving, efficiency and collaboration. It enables us as leaders to rise above the day-to-day direction of activity and creates space for future thinking, anticipation and strategy building.
The thinking for many years amongst the leadership community has been that to create high performance, you need to manage performance. My proposition is that managing performance is a misnomer in terms of creating a high performing culture. In human systems where we have such amazing resources within our people, we have to start far earlier upstream. In the absence of upstream leadership, potential high performing individuals and teams can be limited in their potential and indeed often require “performance management” due to a mismatch in expectation rather than capability.
You could argue that managing performance is based on the setting of objectives and therefore expectation is clear – however, in many instances either objectives are not fully considered as a shared activity between manager and employee or as a team, or they do not represent sufficient clarity such that the interpretation of their delivery is not fully understood. What starts as a conversation which may seem in alignment, can diverge over time to create different experiences of what success, expectation and delivery look like. Indeed, often setting objectives only attends to the tasks, rather than any realistic discussion of the holistic aspects required to perform.
With a greater focus upstream, leaders can almost eliminate the need for difficult and often divisive performance management conversations. Seeking clarity and an honest exchange is key. This is also not a process, but a way of being a leader which is continuous and proactive rather than reactive. There are three key steps to building this into your leadership practice:
1. The foundation for expectation setting is an assumption and belief that everyone, regardless of level or experience, is equally committed to the same shared endeavour. This requires assumptions to be made explicit rather than each other presuming that where we are going, why and what we are working on together is the same. Being explicit about this foundational aspect of working together is essential.
2. Once direction and purpose are clear, sharing the work that needs to get done and how is crucial. Again, having an explicit discussion about what needs to happen for this individual or this team to reach that outcome. This is not a vague or overcomplicated objective, but a clear and realistic description of the what and the how. At this point a clear differentiator which is a game-changer in these conversations is exchange. By this I mean not just one person (i.e., the manager) stating what needs to get done, but a process of seeking to understand, summarising what the other has said and repeating back for shared understanding. This ensures that when we might use different language we are actually talking about the same thing. It also ensures that we do not over-simplify or generalise what we mean, but we are deeply explicit with each other.
3. The third critical step of expectation setting attends to a clear discussion about needs. This is a step very often not explicitly discussed when talking about objectives. This is an exchange between a leader and individual or group to outline “what it will take” to do the work that needs to get done. For example, a simple way of conducting this exchange is to look at the work that needs to get done, and share very openly and realistically, “what I bring” and “what I need”. This may constitute that an individual brings experience, enthusiasm, or something from a past job role which can be optimised and leveraged. It can be that what they need is, for example, autonomy, clear decisions or more information.
The same goes for the leader in this situation – clearly explaining what they bring might involve offers of time, an open door to discuss problems and explaining what they need might be that they need a weekly report on progress in order to summarise back to their leadership the status of a project for example. Having an open discussion in this example between the individual’s need for autonomy and the leader’s need for a weekly report can enable both to find a way to get what they need from each other, without misinterpretation or a difficult conversation. That difficult conversation you can imagine from the individual’s perspective might be, “My manager wants constant updates; they don’t trust me.” From the manager’s point of view, it might be, “This person isn’t providing the updates that I need without me constantly asking for them and their attitude is difficult.”
These misunderstandings are the origins of performance management conversations which can be pre-empted by absolute clarity between two people who have a shared agenda if they exchange well through setting expectations.
Expectations and exchange need to be a constant feature of the leadership relationship with their teams. This process of exchange follows three steps:
1. Foundational shared agenda
2. Clear shared understanding of the work that needs to get done
3. Discussion about what each person brings and needs.
There is no need for formal performance management discussions other than in extremely rare situations where there is a definite mismatch between an individual and the position they are employed to fulfil. Regular discussions where everyone is course-correcting as they go with a focus on absolute clarity and seeking to understand and be understood, then a build-up of lack of understanding and mismatch of expectations would not occur.
From a time management perspective as a leader, this is an example of a pre-emptive focus of energy. Creating clarity through expectations and genuine exchange results in the ability to ensure that the conditions are optimised for high performance for everyone and that there is a clear shared understanding of what that looks like.
All human beings are wired to be defensive when criticised – focusing on setting expectations together should enable this virtuous positive cycle which is self-reinforcing and self-correcting. It is the cornerstone for any leader with a growth mindset and interest in positive, high-performing work cultures.
Paula Leach has over 25 years of experience in HR, most notably as chief people officer at The Home Office and global chief people officer at FDM Group. She now runs her own business, Vantage Points Consulting, and is the author of Vantage Points: how to create a culture where employees thrive.