This month’s theme being creativity, let’s start this blog post with a creative illustration.

You’re just into a game of Monopoly (buckle up for a long night), and it’s your turn. Landing on Baltic Avenue, you decide to save your cash and pass on the property. Your friend objects, “If you land on an open real estate, you have to buy it!” Wait a minute; you’ve never heard that rule. Suddenly you’re playing different games! You won’t get much further if you can’t resolve this roadblock.

What happened? It’s easy to assume that everyone has common knowledge when it comes to a well-known game like Monopoly, but it turns out you and your friend learned it slightly differently. The game begins without any questions asked, and the game goes smoothly until you hit a wall because not everyone is playing by the same rules.

The same thing can happen in a workplace team; only the consequences are much more serious than those in a Friday night board game dispute. Deadlines, schedules, budgets—there are so many demands on teams that each member might have different standards for functioning.

How do you get your team on the same page?

Here’s the secret:

Clarify expectations up front and build in consequences for falling short.

Clear Expectations Help Meet Goals

Setting expectations requires you to dig deep into your team’s routines and functions. Processes that seem self-explanatory on the surface may need a better definition for your team. Setting a common understanding for the small things gives team members the coordination they need to function. Just as in parenting where rules establish healthy boundaries, clear expectations at work create a healthy culture.

I know what you’re thinking: “I already have goals set for my team.” Often expectations and goals are used interchangeably, but they mean very different things in the context of a team. Goals are big-picture and bottom-line—what the team is trying to accomplish as a whole. Expectations are the everyday rules, the playbook, that make goals achievable.

Expectations without consequences are suggestions.

In most organizations, falling short of goals has repercussions for the leader, but seldom for individual team members. Expectations, on the other hand, are standards that hold everyone equally accountable. (We’ll discuss the role of goals in a future blog post.)

Enforce Expectations with Consequences

Expectations are meaningless without penalties for breaking them. It can be tricky to enforce expectations on the team; to succeed, make sure the penalties apply to you as well as your team members! Nothing erodes trust faster than rules inconsistently applied.

Let’s see how this might look in action:

Team leader Thao has set an expectation for conflict resolution. Any time a disagreement arises between two teammates, they must first try to resolve it privately one on one. If they are not able to make progress, they need to bring the issue to Thao’s attention, and she’ll help arrive at a solution. If things aren’t cleared up at that level, or if the conflict is more personal, the team members need to take it a step further and involve the head of HR.

One day, Thao’s team members Allen and Luis argue about steps in a marketing strategy they’ve been working on together. After getting nowhere, each of them leaves in a huff. Word spreads around the office, and soon everyone has taken a side in the disagreement. Thao first learns of the problem by overhearing gossip.

Now Thao has several issues on her hands:

Sport metal whistle on color background

Resolving the original dispute over strategy; enforcing consequences (she decides to cancel their summer Friday off this week to give them time to complete their work); and ending the drama in the group as a whole by holding a meeting to review what happened.

See how one deviation from stated expectations spawns a series of unintended problems? Had Allen and Luis gone to Thao right away, their project could have moved forward on time, their time off would have stayed intact, and the whole team could have avoided a contentious environment. Fortunately, Thao had laid out clear expectations at the outset.

There was a system in place, and it worked—painful though it was.

Where rules establish healthy boundaries, clear expectations at work create a healthy culture.

Summary: Create Freedom with Expectations

Expectations aren’t restrictions; they’re the ground rules that make team life functional for everyone. One member can only be as creative and effective as his or her collaborators, and setting a fair playing field is an essential part of making that happen.

Interested in learning more about setting expectations and leading your team to better results? My eBook Leading Teams that Get Results explores this content in the chapter “Clarify Team Expectations”. When you’re ready to take your team to the next level, contact me about a Team Cohesion training series.

In the next blog post, I’ll explore how to develop a healthy, more efficient team culture.

Do you have a story to share of when team expectations, or lack thereof, helped or hindered your team? Please comment and we’ll learn together.


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