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Reduce Workplace Stress by Setting Clear Expectations

Stress on the job is at an all-time high. In fact, a 2021 survey by Gallup found that 57% of U.S. workers are stressed out. The reasons for this are many, but larger workloads due to companies being short-staffed; constant deadlines; and unrealistic expectations from leadership are the main causes of worker stress. Additionally, changes in the ways companies function and communicate due to the pandemic are additional stressors employees are facing. All of this, on top of inflation and trying to make ends meet with monthly bills, does not relieve stress in the workplace.

But there is one thing that leaders can do right now to help reduce unneeded stress for employees. The topic of unrealistic expectations comes up often in my coaching sessions with leaders. In fact, when unrealistic expectations are imposed on a leader’s direct reports, usually the direct report and the leader both end up frustrated and stressed out when these unrealistic expectations are not met.

Setting clear expectations can not only reduce unneeded stress, it can also positively boost energy and engagement; instill a sense of bringing value to the company; increase efficiency; and bring more accuracy to planning and forecasting. Being very clear on goals and objectives and setting realistic expectations is a sign of a great leader with accurate vision.

Here’s a three-step process for setting and communicating clear expectations with your team. This process allows the employee to have input into the goals and expectations that are placed on them. This doesn’t mean their answers are the final set of goals and expectations, but the process will allow them to have input and so create more of an emotional connection to the desired outcomes.

Step 1. Employee Self-Evaluation on Role Success

Provide the following questions to each direct report and give them about a week or so to write down their answers.

  1. What does success in your position look like to you? I call this the Target Goals. This question asks the employee to identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the position. These must be actionable, observable, and measurable from the employee’s perspective. This answer should be a bullet list of measurable outcomes.

  2. How do you plan to achieve the KPIs that you identified in question 1? I call this the Process Goals. This question is an opportunity to get a feel for the employee’s concrete vision of accomplishing the desired outcomes. You’ll want to discover what they think they need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis to achieve the desired KPIs.

  3. Based on your answers to questions 1 & 2, what are the things you do well in this position? This question probes for what the employee views as his or her strengths related to the Target and Process Goals that they identified for themselves.

  4. Based on your answers to questions 1 & 2, what are the things that you need to improve on? This question probes for what the employee views as his or her development needs related to the Target and Process Goals that they identified for themselves.

  5. What does my manager do well and what can they improve on? This question is an opportunity to find out what you as a leader can do better. As a leader, whenever you are in the process of giving feedback on what someone does well and can improve upon, it’s only right to get that same constructive feedback on your leadership skills. This question also provides good information on how to best manage the employee.

Step 2: Manager Evaluation of Role Success The next step for a leader is to answer some questions about each of their direct reports. The content from the following four questions should be documented.

  1. What does success in the employee’s position look like to me? Provide a bullet list of outcomes and target goals that are actionable, observable, and measurable. An example might be “Achieving 100 percent of your sales quota” for a salesperson. If it’s not actionable, observable, or measurable, it doesn’t belong here.

  2. What do I see the employee doing to achieve the desired KPIs? Describe the Process goals and what you see the employee doing on a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis to achieve the desired KPIs. This may be derived from the core competencies of each job title. Examples are communication, sales appointments, teamwork, community and involvement. The key here is to use action-oriented language to state what you actually see the employee doing. An example of this might be “I see you going out on five sales appointments with prospects each week.” If you are trying to correct unwanted behavior describe what the desired behavior looks like rather than telling the employee to simply stop the unwanted behavior. An example of this for an employee that consistently arrives at work 20 minute late every day might be “I see you arriving on time and at your desk working by 8 a.m. every day.”

  3. What things does the employee do well in their position? In a similar manner to your answers in questions 1 & 2, describe the strengths that you see in the employee.

  4. What are the things the employee can improve on? In a similar manner to your answers to questions 1 & 2, describe the employee’s growth and development opportunities—but refrain from using the term “weaknesses.”

Step 3: Communicating Clear Expectations & Finalizing Realistic Goals I recommend a series of three brief meetings to communicate and discuss the information, with the ultimate goal of completing and agreeing on a “clear expectations” document. These meetings should follow a clear sequence.

First, after the employee has completed his or her self-evaluation, sit down together and listen to the results of the employee’s self-evaluation. The leader’s role is simply to listen and confirm what the employee is communicating.

The second meeting, about one week from the first meeting, is to communicate your answers to the questions regarding the employee.

Then take the answers from both the employee’s self-evaluation and your perspective and merge them into a single final expectations & goals document.

Then conduct a third meeting with the employee to confirm and sign-off on the performance outcomes and expectations. The overall goals/outcomes should include some of the outcomes and success factors defined by the employee, to give them ownership of the agreed goals. This also avoids the problem of the employee feeling he or she had no input regarding the expectations and goals that are imposed on them.

A Real Story of Unneeded Stress

It's important to go through a process like this to establish clear goals and expectations, and to let the employee know where they stand in performance terms. A newly hired VP of a client company recently told me that their executive team never does performance evaluations at that level. This new VP told me that he would go home stressed out every night for the first six months telling his wife he thought he was about to be fired. He said he never got any feedback on what was expected of him and how he was doing. Once I got his direct manager (the CEO) to give him some feedback, the new VP told me he was relieved, and it was a load off his mind. He and his wife were now feeling much better about their future.

In Summary

As a leader it is your job to set clear, realistic expectations. I do believe in stretch goals, but when stretch goals become unrealistic pipedreams, we do ourselves and our teams no favors. Reduce the stress on your team by setting and communicating clear, realistic goals and expectations. Let them know how they are doing along the way and be a coach and teacher rather than a judge.


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