Establishing Expectations: Ten Suggestions for Supervisors and Managers

Organizations work only when the people who make them up share common values (rules) and have dependable expectations of themselves, each other and management. Here are 10 suggestions or supervisors and managers to make this a reality in your organization.

A lot of time is spent in Agencies on performance expectations. As a result, both supervisors and employees get smart about performance. Whether the various performance systems in place work well or not is way beyond my competence. Too often though, even more time is spent correcting problem behavior. This may result from inadequate attention by managers to spelling out their day to day expectations about how they want their organization to run and the people within it to interact, behave, and generally get things done.

There are some who believe if they get the job done, that’s all there is to it. They’re wrong. Organizations work, when they do, only when the people who make them up share common values (rules) and have dependable (predictable) expectations of themselves, each other and management.

Establishing rules and expectations is frequently a manager or supervisor’s toughest job. The management theory (Paul Hersey’s Situational Model) that divides styles into tell, sell, consult or join is helpful in that it reduces the impact of day to day decision making on people to the point even I can understand it.

Many managers get caught up in complexity missing the simple truth that most employees will meet your expectations regardless of your style if they know exactly what those expectations are. Hersey explains that employee commitment to rules and expectations will vary according to the way those rules are communicated. It has always made sense to me. However, to work Hersey’s model, you must first have rules and expectations to communicate.

Before you ever get to the point of communicating rules and expectations, you must do that most uncommon thing, spend time thinking about what you want and why you want it. Here’re some suggestions to help you get there:

1. Don’t assume employees know the rules

Many years ago I went from teaching high school to a job in Federal government. At the end of my first week, my supervisor asked me to complete a time sheet. I asked, what for? He told me to certify that I had worked 40 hours. I was a little taken aback because while I had had many jobs requiring time cards, they were all blue collar or menial. I hadn’t done an attendance sheet in any of the six years I taught school. I had generally worked from a ½ hour to an hour before the kids got there until practice (I coached as well) was over. No one ever questioned whether I was working or not.

New employees, employees new to you, and sometimes even those you’ve been working with a while don’t know (or in some cases claim not to know) what you want unless you communicate it to them on an individual level.

2. Get an accurate handle on your Agency’s rules

Make sure you know the rules. You are the Agency’s representative to employees. I’ve worked around supervisors who don’t agree with an Agency policy and let it be known that they didn’t. They crow they had to eat at a later date must not have been very tasty when they were advised (read directed) to follow that same rule by a higher official. You can get help with Agency rules from human resources, financial management, travel, security or other such offices within the Agency.

3. Figure out how you want your organization to run

Leadership and decision making approaches vary not only from person to person but arguably better from situation to situation. Get a handle on whether people or units under your supervision need more or less of a rule. The same applies to expectations. There are employees who operate very effectively within loose supervision and those that require more attention. The people most often afforded freedom to operate are those who make it their business to operate within rules and who understand your expectations whether you communicate them effectively or not. In other words, the poles on the bar chart are “those who get it” and “those who don’t” with people on both ends and spread out across the middle. Those who get it are not generally the subject of articles like this.

4. Make a list of rules within your authority and communicate them

Believe it or not, it was Otto von Bismarck who said that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”. The laws (rules) you’ll make will directly impact the people on whom your success depends. You’d be wise to run them by at least “the ones that get it” and make sure they pass the smell test. It might even be wise to put together a small group of staff and ask them to develop a list of needed rules. Just make sure that, in the end, they include those important to you.

5. Develop an introduction to your work group and personally communicate it to the group

Your Agency will likely conduct something called a New Employee Orientation. These are often good when a number of people are getting hired and not so good when hiring is sporadic. Whether good or not, these sessions will usually have very little to do with day to day work operations. Whether good or not, it is vital to your success and that of every single employee that you provide a detailed, well planned and structured introduction to each newcomer. To help you get started, I’ve provided a “New (To You) Employee Checklist“.

By the way, don’t use this as written! It’s for the people who work with you and should be customized to fit your workplace. Add stuff. Remove stuff. But use one just the same. FYI, you can’t get in trouble running your version past both your boss and your HR advisor.

6. Look at the Checklist from time to time and reinforce it with people who don’t get it

Your checklist should incorporate your rules and expectations. It will be a dynamic document and change as situations change. It will also serve as a base for you when “those who don’t get it” start to argue, as sometimes occurs, that they weren’t aware of a rule or expectation.

7. Address general problems with the whole staff

Assume for a minute that the Agency wants employees to enter and exit the office or building by a certain set of doors. The other doors while not alarmed, inform security that someone has used them. There are no cameras. Management has asked each supervisor to remind employees about this rule. This is appropriate for a whole staff meeting.

Now, let’s suppose there are cameras and one of your finest is on tape using the forbidden door. This is a matter for individual not group involvement. Nothing upsets people more than listening to complaints from authority about things they are not doing. It’s a little like sitting in those never comfortable pews through a long sermon railing against those who aren’t in attendance.

8. Address individual problems individually

Well communicated rules and expectations make problem solving meetings easier to plan and run. Take a look at an earlier article for more detail on running one of these meetings.

9. Set a time to meet with or speak with each employee on a regular basis

The more distant both in miles and contacts we get from a subordinate, the more difficult communicating expectations gets. How often? For new employees and “those who don’t get it”, probably daily. For others, it’s your call but get yourself a reminder system and follow it. Emails DO NOT CUT IT!! Most employees get many emails in a day and their impact is minimal. It’s best to interact face to face with people, talking to them on a phone is second best. Other means just aren’t very effective.

10. Praise is as important as correction

Take this to heart. Make it a common practice to commend people for a job well done. Having spent most of a Federal career helping managers correct inappropriate behavior, I found that those who responded best to correction did so where the manager sold the positive benefits of improvement and let the person know how much improvement was appreciated.

As always, any opinions expressed or matters incorrectly referenced are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.