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You Need Clear Expectations at Work

Being given specific expectations is crucial to doing your best work.

Key points

  • Specific guidelines at work are always beneficial—even the most artistic or creative jobs require structure and guidelines.
  • Remaining in continuous communication with your boss about steps completed and steps ahead will help keep you aligned.
  • It's possible to get specific expectations from your boss, even if you know more about the technical work than they do.

Is your boss asking you enough questions at work? Or are they more likely to give you an assignment, and expect you to figure out the details and deliver?

Being given specific expectations is always better than being given free rein. Even the most artistic or creative jobs require structure and guidelines. Image specifications, video length limits, or scripts: all of these are specific requirements that help people deliver the best final product.

The questions your manager should be asking, and the questions you need to be answering, are:

  • What do you need to complete this assignment?
  • What additional information, training, tools, materials, space, money or people might you need?
  • What is your plan for achieving this assignment?
  • Have you set a schedule for meeting deadlines along the way?
  • Have you created a to-do list or checklist for each step of the project?
  • How long will step one take? What guidelines are you following for step one, and each step after?

When you are able to talk through the answers to these questions with your boss, then you know for sure that you and your boss have the same expectations. If you and your boss both take clear notes while you talk through the answers to these questions, you both can ensure you are on the same page.

Pexels/Alex Green
If you and your boss both take clear notes during your 1:1 conversations, you can ensure you're on the same page.
Source: Pexels/Alex Green

Managing expectations in the midst of constant change

The reality of today’s workplace is constant change. When priorities change, expectations change. That why it’s even more critical for you to be engaging in an ongoing management conversation with your boss. Every time there is a shift or change that requires a significant adjustment or course-correction in priorities and expectations, you need to make sure you ask your boss the following questions:

  • What has shifted and changed and what adjustments and course corrections do I need to make?
  • How do I need to change or adjust my resource-plan?
  • How do I need to reprioritize my to-do list of concrete actions?
  • Does the checklist, to ensure quality control for every concrete action, change as a result of this shift in priorities?
  • What priorities should I be focused on as of right now?

When your boss is not the expert

It’s OK that your boss doesn’t know or understand everything you may be doing. But it’s not OK for your boss to remain totally in the dark. When trying to get your boss to spell out expectations, focus on outcomes:

  • Exactly what is it you want me to accomplish?
  • What do you want to be holding in your hands in the end?
  • What is the effect you are looking for?

Help your boss do the homework so that they can ask you questions during your management conversations and make sure you are on the right track to meeting those expectations. Keep them informed: “This is where we are now. This is how long it took to get here. This is what I am going to do next.” Document the basics of these conversations.

While your boss may never become an expert, over time, they will get to know your work better and better.

Get into the rhythm of your work

I’ve spent a lot of time observing and talking with people who work in complex, rapidly-changing, pressure-filled environments—workplaces in constant motion, where everyone is in a hurry and multitasking, and everyone needs to work with and depend upon each other. If you work in one of these workplaces, you may not be sure what matters most at every moment of the day, what you are supposed to be focused on, or what should be a priority—and you may not have access to your boss to get clarification on these rapidly shifting priorities.

“The key to succeeding in any work situation is getting into the rhythm of the set patterns,” said one wise sage of the workplace who over the years has worked in six pressure-filled workplaces—as an army medic, EMT in a civilian ambulance, emergency room nurse, intensive care nurse, and, after a total career change, as a restaurant entrepreneur.

They continue: “I know some managers are very good at organizing their people so that most of their employees are into the rhythm. They keep everyone in sync with the changing priorities. They have a sheet of music for everyone to play off, a checklist for everyone—from the top to the bottom job—to help everyone stay in tune with the rhythm of the place.”

“My advice is: Wherever you work, whether your managers are good at helping you or not, pay attention to the rhythm of work and learn your part of the music by heart so you always know exactly what you are supposed to be doing at any point depending on where you are in the rhythm. The unexpected is an expected part of the rhythm. I learned in the Army, when the unexpected happens, that’s when you need the training to kick in.”

What does that really mean? It means you should know the standard operating procedures for just about every situation in your job. “When things are most unpredictable is when you need the standard operating procedures the most,” he argues. If you work in a place without clear rules of engagement, without standard operating procedures for the expected or the unexpected, “you need come up with your own standard operating procedures,” this sage of the workplace concludes. “Make your own checklists. Write your own sheet of music and play it as best you can every day. If you are the only one who can get into the rhythm, then you’ll be ‘the one.’ You’ll be walking through the hail of fire unscathed, doing your own thing very well, helping everyone else out. That’s how you become a peer leader.”

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