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How to set expectations for employees

June 6, 2022 - 19 min read


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What are employee expectations

How to set clear employee expectations

How to communicate employee expectations

Setting employee versus team expectations

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the way we work has changed over the past two years. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the rise of remote work, employees and employers alike have had to adapt to what sometimes feels like a whole new world. 

As we face the “new normal” together, you may be wondering how to set employee expectations. Whether you’re focused on retention, employee performance, or preventing burnout, setting expectations can help. 

However, many employers aren’t setting clear expectations. In fact, a survey from Gallup showed that most employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work. This can lead to drops in employee engagement, which ultimately, can cause people to leave your company altogether. 

Employee turnover is always a risk, but it’s more relevant than ever today. Microsoft reports that 52% of millennials and Gen Z workers are likely to consider changing employers in 2022. So how can you get ahead of it? Learn how to set proper expectations for your employees. 

Setting expectations can help you make sure both new hires and long-time team members are equipped to succeed. Plus, Gallup reports that employees who know what is expected of them are more engaged, productive, and satisfied at work.

It certainly takes leadership skills to manage employee performance. Let’s dive into how you can learn to set employee expectations.

What are employee expectations?

Learning how to manage expectations at work is clearly important. But first, it's worth getting on the same page about what people mean when they say "employee expectations." What exactly are employee expectations?

In this case, employee expectations means the expectations that an organization and leader have of an individual. Employees might also expect things of their employer or manager, but this article is about what is expected of individual employees. 

Employee expectations are behavior, performance, and work tasks and outcomes set by a company’s leadership or management team. These expectations can be defined formally in an employee handbook or job description. They can also be shared more informally during team meetings or 1-1 discussions

Employee expectations usually include the way people work and interact with others in addition to the work itself. Results or outcomes is another important aspect of setting expectations.

Here are some examples of employee expectations: 

  • The expectation set by a manager for the sales team to bring in X amount of revenue from new customers during a certain timeframe 
  • The expectation set by a CEO for all employees to uphold certain company culture values, like integrity, ethical decisions, and excellence 
  • The expectation set by team leaders for each team member to finish their deliverables on time and communicate proactively about obstacles
  • The expectation set by a manager for employees to show up on time to meetings and show respect, interest, and professional courtesy to others



How to set clear employee expectations

As a leader, it’s your job to help drive success for your company. And if you’re directly managing a team, setting clear expectations for your employees is one of the best ways to do that. With a bit of intention, you can learn how to set expectations for your team and help your employees thrive. 

Here are our top 6 tips for how to set expectations for employees:

  1. Set employee expecations early and often 
  2. Keep expectations attainable and realistic 
  3. Make expectations follow the SMART goal framework
  4. Connect expectations to clear metrics 
  5. Review employee performance regularly
  6. Be open to collaborating on expectations 

Let’s dive in a little deeper to each of these methods of managing expectations at work.

1. Set expectations early and often 

From the time you begin the hiring process for a position, you are setting employee expectations. Even if it’s not intentional, the role’s job description can demonstrate certain performance expectations. So will the kinds of interview questions you ask.

The good news? You can take advantage of this opportunity to begin setting expectations earlier. The sooner you make things clear, the more likely a new hire will meet your expectations. 

After a new employee is hired, the onboarding process is the perfect place to continue setting concrete expectations. In fact, employee performance can increase by 11% where there’s an effective onboarding process. That’s a great reason to define a position’s roles and responsibilities — and communicate them — right from the start.

2. Keep expectations realistic 

As you learn how to set expectations for employees, remember to keep them reasonable. Asking your team to work long hours, for example, is not always a realistic expectation. There may be rare times when extra work is required, but it shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. 

If your expectations are not realistic, your employees could become burnt out. They may also feel like they’re being disrespected if you’re too demanding and that’s one of the top reasons people quit. Be sure that what you’re asking of your team is truly reasonable and allows them to keep a work-life balance

Remember that if your goal is employee engagement and retention, realistic expectations are a must. 

3. Make expectations that follow the SMART goals framework 

Have you heard of SMART goals? SMART stands for: 

  • Specific 
  • Measurable
  • Attainable 
  • Relevant 
  • Time-bound 


SMART goals are proven to help drive key results at work. They can help you successfully set team goals, too. Before you communicate an expectation to your employees, ask yourself if it checks each of the boxes above. If the answer is no, your expectation may be half-baked. 

When your expectations are unclear, your employees will be confused about what they need to do. This will lead them to be less motivated, ultimately making them less productive and less fulfilled at work. That’s the last thing you want as a team leader. If you want to learn how to set expectations for employees, start by making sure your goals are SMART. You can also ask your employees to outline their goals in a 30-60-90 day plan format. 


4. Connect expectations to clear metrics 

Another part of learning how to set expectations for employees? Always define clear metrics for your team. This is one of the best ways to ensure that your employees are performing at their best.

Metrics are the benchmarks connected to specific goals. For example, if you want your social media manager to increase engagement, don’t just say that. Set the clear expectation that social media engagement should increase by 30% by the end of the first quarter. 

Sometimes attaching metrics to your expectations is difficult. Certain goals are less directly tied to numbers and dates. However, if you can’t find a way to tie your expectations back to your team or company goals, you might want to rethink the expectation.

5. Review employee performance regularly

There’s no use in setting metrics if you don’t have a process for reviewing them with your team. 

Annual performance reviews are one way to do this, and are common at most companies. They should be prioritized and conducted yearly (or more often) with guidance from human resources. 

However, to maintain clear employee expectations, leaders should give feedback and review performance more regularly. For example, if you’re managing just a couple of individuals, it would be worth your time to have 1-1 meetings with them every week. In these meetings you can discuss expectations and whether the employee is meeting them a lot closer to real time. That way, you can stay aligned. 

In addition, more frequent check-ins about expectations helps the employee  grow. The employee has an opportunity to understand and adjust their behaviors if they are not meeting expectations. The manager can also adjust expectations if it becomes clear that they are no longer relevant.

If you have a bigger team, you’ll need to rely on employees’ direct managers to take the lead. You can still have a reporting process that allows you to keep tabs on how everyone is doing, but try to avoid micromanaging.

6. Be open to collaborating on expectations

When you start learning how to set expectations for employees, it’s best to take the lead and dive in. However, your team communication will improve over time. As it does, you should take advantage of opportunities to collaborate

People who do their jobs on a daily basis are likely to have valuable insight into what their work goals should be. Plus, frontline employees who regularly interact with customers can contribute their experience to the team strategy. 

As a leader, your job is to listen to your team and embrace inclusive leadership. However, remember at the end of the day, you need to clarify and communicate the expectations so that everyone is on the same page.


How to communicate employee expectations

Knowing how to set expectations for employees is one thing. Effectively communicating those expectations is an entirely different story. 

Maybe your employee doesn’t agree with a certain expectation, forcing you to use your conflict resolution skills. Or, your employee could misunderstand what you’re asking and do things entirely different than you wanted. Either way, you can improve your articulation with these tips for how to communicate employee expectations: 

  • Always include the why when sharing an expectation, so that employees have motivation to meet it
  • Be clear and follow the SMART framework mentioned above, so that employees know exactly what you’re asking for 
  • After communicating an expectation, give space for employees to ask questions, so that you can make sure everyone is aligned 
  • Ask your employees for feedback on your expectations, so that you know when you’re going too far 
  • Make sure expectations are documented somewhere, so that employees know where to go when they have questions and everyone is held accountable

Setting employee expectations versus team expectations

Now that you know how to set employee expectations, you may be wondering if you need separate expectations for your team. The short answer is yes, but there’s a bit of a difference.

Employee expectations are based on one person’s performance. You might have similar expectations for everyone on your team. The specific expectations you have for each individual might also differ based on their job description. 

Team expectations, on the other hand, are expectations related to how your employees should work together. These expectations can be about making sure the team hits specific goals, like executing X number of marketing campaigns in a quarter. Or, your goals could be based on the team’s overall strategy. 

For companies to be more agile and respond more quickly to changing needs, teams and individuals need to be able to make more decisions. Managers can help their teams do this effectively by providing the right guidance and guardrails. Managers create this environment when they set clear, strategically thought out expectations on team success and what it looks like. Otherwise, individuals may, with good intent, optimize their own work but hurt team performance.

For example, let’s say your team’s strategy is to increase revenue by engaging X number of customers by the end of the month. Your team expectation would be that using teamwork, your employees complete a set number of deliverables. Their efforts should all contribute to the bigger goal. Then, that goal would then be reviewed at the end of the project. Team performance metrics would also be discussed. 

In contrast, your employee expectations would be that each person fulfills their individual job responsibilities. Your social media manager should create Instagram posts, while the email marketers focus on email campaigns. Each employee should have their own metrics that you review separately from the team’s key results.



How to set team expectations

Learning how to set employee expectations is definitely different than setting team expectations. When you’re dealing with more people, that means more opinions, questions, and potentially, team conflict. The good news is that by practicing effective communication and soft leadership skills, you can reap the benefits of great teamwork. 

Here are some best practices for how to set team expectations effectively: 

    1. Be as clear as possible when communicating your expectations. If needed, over-explain. Remember, a larger group means more chance that you can be misunderstood. It will be worth it to take the time upfront to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what you need. 
    2. Document and continuously reiterate your team expectations. It can be easy for these to be forgotten, especially in a team setting. Reinforcing your expectations often will be key to making them effective. 
    3. Let other team members take the lead sometimes. If you want team members to be invested in your expectations, empower them to self-manage. They may even bring a fresh perspective that makes everyone more motivated to meet the team expectations. 
    4. Define clear milestones for new projects. As you’re setting team expectations, define check-in points upfront. That way, you make sure there’s a dedicated time for project management. Otherwise, expectations can get lost in the shuffle of a busy team.
    5. Remember to celebrate as a team. People are often rewarded for meeting employee expectations with salary bumps or promotions. Things are a little different when it comes to team expectations. Make sure you find small ways to reward the team after hitting a goal even if it’s ordering everyone pizza at the end of a long week.

Moving forward 

Learning how to set employee expectations can help you become a better leader and manager. Whether you’re trying to improve employee retention, workplace culture, or goal setting, you’re on the right track. 

Do you need extra support as you work on improving your leadership skills? BetterUp could be the tool you need to set goals, stay focused, and become the best version of you. 


Published June 6, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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