Setting Expectations

Performance measurement is conceptually simple. Does what we are measuring meet our expectations? If so, we say it performs well. If not, it performs poorly. Therefore, setting expectations provides the basis for performance management.

For example, let’s imagine a student correctly answers five questions on a ten-question calculus test. Our minimum expectation for a passing grade is six questions correctly answered. We compare the observed measurement against our expectations and categorize this score of 50% as a poor performance.

The above measurement is simple to calculate. It also may be woefully inadequate, which we’ll discuss in Evaluating Performance. Nevertheless, expectation setting is a critical first step in performance management.

The Human Element

Clear expectations build trust. I believe trust is the foundation of a positive culture. Thus, by setting clear expectations we provide the basis for performance management and contribute towards a positive culture. It’s all connected.

The Business Obligation

Our management rightly expects us to measure, monitor, and manage performance. To do so, we must have defined expectations. Without them, we have no context to discuss performance. These expectations should be objectively measurable and connected to business goals your management cares about.

A Humane Approach

Defining Expectation

As I work through the process of defining expectations I try to keep the following three audiences in mind. While listed sequentially, these often happen in parallel and require multiple iterations.

Assumptions. Your management may assume that you’d obviously report on X even though you didn’t mention it. You might assume your staff know that Y will be expected even though you didn’t document it. Ask questions and confirm understandings.


Measuring the wrong things will make our job needlessly difficult. So how do we measure the right things?

  • Write down the decision, and resulting action, you are seeking to inform.
  • List ideas of what you could observe that would increase your confidence making that decision.
  • Consider prior art. How have others measured this?
Your management

Once I’ve done my best to identify actionable measurements, I’ll discuss with my manager. It’s critical to involve them.

  • Do they agree with the approach?
  • Is there anything else they want to see reported on?
  • Did I miss any angles or context that senior/executive management will consider?
Your staff

Good ideas are not unique to management. I’ll often discuss these plans with staff.

  • Do they understand and agree with the approach?
  • How does their perspective differ?
  • How do they think it could be better?

Communicating Expectations

Communication will help avoid frustration. Here’s what I like to do:

  • Once an agreement is reached, put it in writing and share it with your management. Explicit agreement to a mutual understanding helps to avert misunderstandings later.

  • Expectations related to an individual’s performance should be communicated early on in their employment, ideally during their onboarding. Two excellent places to capture expectations are job descriptions and career ladders.