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The Most Common Mistake We Make When Setting Expectations

Few would argue that a key first step to accomplishing anything in life is having a clear understanding of expectations. Not only is it imperative to know what is expected of us personally, it’s important for us as leaders to set clear expectations of those around us (employees, children, vendors, etc.) The expectation becomes the target for achievement.

My experience has shown me that some people are quite good at communicating expectations. The parent who looks at a child and says, “Get upstairs and get your homework done!” The supervisor who looks at an employee and says, “I expect you to start showing up on time!” The wife who looks at her husband and says, “You need to pick up the dry cleaning on your way home from work.” In these scenarios, the leader is clearly communicating the expectation.

For some, an expectation is all that is needed. Tell me what you want and get out of the way! For others who refuse to perform, a clear consequence must be communicated In fact, all three examples above are missing a consequence. Every decision we make in life is driven by an expectation and a consequence. We get up and go to work because we don’t like the consequence of losing our job and the income that comes with our employment. We put gas in our car because we don’t want to be stranded on the side of the road. We pay our utility bill because we don’t want our electricity turned off. I could go on and on.

In his book Bringing Out the Best in People, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1999) Aubrey C. Daniels supports this belief with the theory that every behavior has a consequence, and that the consequence that follows a certain behavior will significantly affect whether or not a person will repeat this behavior. He goes on to show the impact of positive versus negative consequences, future versus immediate consequences, and certain versus uncertain consequences. His observations on the idea of expectations and consequences are right on target.

If we know behavior is directed by a consequence, then we have a responsibility to communicate one up front (particularly for those people who refuse to be motivated simply by an expectation). If we wait until the expectation is not met to decide the consequence, then we ­didn’t give the consequence an opportunity to drive behavior. At that point, the consequence is merely a punishment.

Imagine the mother who tells her son to be home at ten o’clock. When the boy shows up at eleven o’clock, she grounds him for a week. When he screams, “That’s not fair!” he’s right. Fair would be telling him he has to be home at ten, and if he’s late, he’ll be grounded for a week. By knowing the consequence, the young man has an opportunity to decide his own fate.

The most common mistake we make when setting expectations is not communicating a consequence. Some people have told me they won’t set a consequence because they don’t want to be seen as the bad guy when they have to enforce the consequence. First of all, if you’re not setting consequences with employees because you don’t want to be seen as the bad guy, find another profession. Management is not for you. Second, enforcing a consequence does not make you a bad guy. Making up a consequence after the expectation is not met makes you a bad guy.

On your road of leading others with expectations and consequences, here are some things to consider:

Assess how well you’ve communicated expectations

Stop right now and think about the biggest performance issue you’re having with someone (consider your child, employee, client, or vendor). Now, determine if you’ve clearly communicated expectations. Does this person know exactly what is expected? Don’t assume he knows In fact, the easiest way to complete this task is to ask this person for clarification of their responsibilities. You just may be surprised what you hear.

Assess how well you’ve communicated consequences

Once you’ve established you have done a good job communicating expectations and every employee knows what to do to contribute, ask yourself if consequences are in place that will drive the behavior you want. In fact, take a look at that biggest performance challenge and decide if the absence of a consequence may be the cause of the poor performance.

Determine positive consequences that would drive behavior

Although the word consequence has a negative connotation, not all consequences have to be negative. In fact, a negative consequence should be used only when an employee’s performance has not been motivated by a positive consequence.

Ensure the consequence motivates the behavior

My mother tells the story that she learned very early in my life that spanking me had very little effect. She was smart enough to notice that without my bicycle, I ­couldn’t ride around the neighborhood with my friends. She learned that any time she set an expectation for me that she thought I might not meet, she would set a consequence of losing the use of my bicycle for a week. It never failed.

In the ideal world, a leader could communicate expectations and everyone would run out and produce great results. In the real world, where three-quarters of any organization is disengaged, a leader must communicate expectations and consequences, and enforce the consequences. Over time, when employees see they’ve determined their own fate, a culture of employee engagement will develop, and you’ll find less need for negative consequences.

Clint Swindall

© 2016 Clint Swindall — Clint is the president & CEO of Verbalocity, Inc., a personal development company with a focus on leadership enhancement. For information about how he can enhance employee engagement in your organization, please visit, or contact him directly

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