How to: Set Great Expectations

People can’t live up to your expectations if they don’t know what they are. Yet a breakdown of this communication is often the root cause of any failure to accomplish a goal. Managers are always telling us: “This can’t continue, but I want to give them a fair chance. How do I know if it’s them or me?” When we hear this lament, we pull out our three favourite expectation-setting tools: CPQQRT, an open question, and the verbal upfront contract. When these tools are being used consistently, the manager knows they’re doing all they can.

Set a Comprehensive Expectation

There are so many tools for setting expectations – SMART goals, “Plan, Roles, Goals”, Project Briefs, or our favourite, CPQQRT [1](email us if you’d like the worksheet). While all of these tools are designed so you can’t leave anything out, a manager can be confident they effectively communicated their expectations if they fill in (literally) all of the checkboxes explaining what they want done. Enter CPQQRT:

  • Context: What is the background? Why is this new task required?
  • Purpose: State the task and what outcome it will produce. Where Context looks at the current situation, Purpose looks ahead to what this task/activity will achieve or produce.
  • Quality: What standard of work is required? Describe what standard and form you require for the outcomes of the task/activity.
  • Quantity: Describe how many, how much, how often, how big /small etc. or any other measure of the desired outcome.
  • Resources: What resources does the person have to complete this task/activity? Think in terms of budget (money), equipment, tools, consumables, workspace, vehicles, meeting rooms, computers, and of course people. Also, consider whom they can contact for assistance.
  • Time: How long is being given to complete the task/activity, and what milestones are there along the way to meet?

Note that a comprehensive expectation does not necessarily explain how to do the task. It’s counter-intuitive, but when working with a trained individual, a great expectation clearly describes the end goal, but allows staff to figure out their own path.

When managers first try the CPQQRT Worksheet at work, their feedback is usually, “It really clarified my thinking, which is funny because I was sure I had explained it so well the first time. In retrospect, I don’t think even I understood it clearly enough. But can you change the name?” Once you’ve filled the worksheet out, you can speak to the notes, hand them over to someone else, or (best case) use your notes as a draft and collaborate with the staff to clarify them.

Ask an Open Question

An expectation is not clearly set until the manager is assured it is understood. A classic error is when a manager takes great pains to explain what they want done, only to end with a closed question: “So you know what to do?” “Yup.” All of that painstaking work of expectation setting is blown without confirmation they understand, and an affirmative response to the closed question proves nothing. Instead, ask questions like “What do you think is likely to get in your way?” or “Which part of this is different than last time?” Or, if all else fails, “I’m working on setting clear expectations as part of my professional development. Can you recap what we discussed in your own words so I can make sure I’m doing it right?”

The questions force the staff to put themselves into the role of executing the expectation, while challenging them to consider what could go right and wrong.

Verbal Upfront Contract

This “pre-nup” of the expectation setting world is one of our top five management tools of all time. The Verbal Upfront Contract is an agreement between two parties about what to do if expectations are not met. The VUC won’t guarantee success, but it makes it easier to talk about things if they do go off the rails and identifies the consequences (natural or otherwise).

A VUC can be as simple as stating: “Put yourself in my shoes. If we get to the end and we haven’t met the expectation, what would you do?”

Try This at Work

As with everything managerial, these tactics take practice. We recommend picking a straightforward task to practice with, like showing up to meetings prepared or getting timesheets in on time – those irritating urgent management tasks that, when done incorrectly, take up huge amounts of emotional energy. Don’t pick your hardest case when you’re just getting started.

Once you’ve experienced some success, try the techniques on a harder case – a major important project, a more difficult employee, or the situation that makes you ask yourself that nagging question, “Is it them or is it me?” If you use these tools with practice and consistency, you’ve done everything you can. Let us know how it goes in the comments.

[1] CPQQRT was developed by Elliot Jaques, a Canadian organizational psychologist. He also developed the concept of a mid-life crisis.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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