There is no better way to get your job done right and help those working with you get their job done than talking about expectations.

Many years ago when I took a supervisor skills class, I remember thinking: Wow! If they’d told me what they were looking for, I would have been so much better at my job! The class taught me what a supervisor should look for, what they should provide feedback on, and so on.

If only someone had told me earlier what they were doing!

Defining Expectations

The first part of coaching is setting expectations.

People are more motivated by expectations and goals if they’ve set them themselves, so I like to ask my team members at the start of the project to sit down and think about a few questions before we meet:

  • How do they define personal success on the project?
  • How do they define the project’s success?
  • What would be an absolutely tremendous, knock-your-socks off personal success?
  • What is something that they would like to learn on the project (even if it would appear out of scope for their role)?

To some, this exercise may seem as hokey as writing a professional statement. However, it’s the first step in coaching.

First of all, people like talking about themselves. You may have to draw some people out on the subject, but that’s what these questions do. When they start talking about personal success, they’re really talking about who they are. You’ll learn a lot from that.

Next, if you can have an honest conversation with a team member about how they define success, you’ll learn what their values are:

  • What do they care about?
  • What motivates them?
  • How do they see themselves working with a team?

It should also become plain in the discussion how their personal success supports project success. If nothing else, asking someone to frame these together drives the mental connection of the two, and it shows that you consider both of them to be important.

I especially like to talk about what someone sees as a grand success – this is tremendously valuable in a situation where you are going to be providing performance feedback. They tell you what their stretch goal is, you talk about it and help shape it to something achievable on the project. Then you’ve got it written down and ready to discuss at performance review time.

This is particularly important when you’re working with people who are eager to prove themselves. Maybe they want to be promoted, maybe they just want the respect or maybe they’re angling for a good bonus. If the two of you can agree on what would be a fabulous success, then they’ve got something concrete to work for, which is much easier than if they try to read your mind. You can also reflect back on this during the project, commending them for a success that matches this goal or encouraging them to greater efforts.

Discussion of what else they’d like to learn is also enlightening. Maybe they’d like to expand their role, or just pick up some additional knowledge. Many times you’ll hear simpler things, like, “I’d like to get more chances to do group presentations.” If you know their interest, you can work with that. You’ll have that enthusiasm to use if you need to decide who will work on a given task, or how to rearrange roles.

Again, just showing that genuine interest in someone else’s development brings its own rewards.

Defining Your Own Expectations

That’s all the first part of expectations: have team members establish their own.

However, you’ve got your own expectations to set. You can tell people what you’re looking for, what you’re expecting to see, and the quality of work you’re expecting. You can tell people what else you think is important to project success.

This relates closely to topics in previous chapters about project risks. For example, in one case I expected communication with certain subject matter experts to be critical to the project. We needed them on our side, but not just superficially; we really needed to deliver for them. This meant constant communication and engagement. Even though this was out of the ordinary for the technical team members I had, I let them know that this was part of what we needed to do.

Some of your expectations can be very tactical and project-specific, such as frequency and style of communications, participation in a project cadence, issue escalation and the like. Some of them can be more general or philosophical, i.e., learning more about the business process, improving presentation skills, or learning a methodology or standard are examples of these.

With all of these, you’re getting your teammate focused on the work to be done and how you think success will be achieved with it. By doing this at the start of the project, you’re getting the team into the mindset to perform.

Defining Project Expectations

You should also share your own definition of project success, which I usually draw from my own perception of the situation, along with what has been shared with me by the project sponsor or stakeholders. This not only educates the team about our objective, it coaches them on how others in the organization see the project.

Imagine you’ve got a project to build a website for a company. It’s interesting work, maybe coming close to cutting edge technology, and the company is good to work for. Your team sees this and establishes an interest in the project work based on these factors.

Now imagine you know, as the project leader, that this website is considered strategically critical by the company. The company is banking its future on what your team delivers. Great rewards await project stakeholders if the project delivers, and, alas, penalties await if it fails.

To engaged team members, knowing this makes a difference. People enjoy being part of something big, but your team will also want to know that there’s going to be pressure to deliver.