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If the performance of some of your employees is leaving something to be desired, the fault may not be with them. As a leader, ask yourself: Have I been clear enough about my expectations?

You can’t hold someone accountable for poor performance or behavior if you haven’t set clear expectations about what good looks like from the start. Yet many businesses stumble at this crucial step, assuming that ‘common sense’ will guide people’s actions and communication.

But common sense isn’t all that common, and no-one thinks exactly like you. In the absence of clear expectations, misunderstandings, conflicts, inefficiencies, frustration and poor performance thrive.

The key to ensuring accountability lies in the initial setup. Most performance misalignments and ‘people problems’ within a business can be sidestepped or mitigated with good communication and clear expectations outlined from the beginning. Invest time upfront and outline what ‘done well’ looks like.

Establishing clear expectations, where both parties are encouraged to ask questions and clarify shared understanding, sets everyone up for success.

Define the standard you want tasks completed to, the timeline or deadline, the approach, the level of detail required and prioritize what’s most important – whether it be accuracy, speed or thoroughness. Don’t keep this information in your head, leave things unsaid, or assume people will just get on with it. Your people are not mind readers.

And it’s not just about you as the leader dictating your expectations from on high; clarifying shared expectations should be a collaborative effort involving the other person and in some instances, the whole team.


Consider questions like:

• What does ‘done well’ or ‘good’ look like when it comes to behavior, performance or specific task completion?
• What does your team want to be known for, and what do you need to do to be known for that?
• What does good behavior and communication toward each other look like in practice?
• What is the expected response time to clients?
• If you have a concern, what are the expectations around how you raise this?
• What will we do and what won’t we do?
• What is OK, what’s not OK?


Without these specifics, you leave too much to chance, expecting your staff to guess and for that guess to be aligned with your assumed meaning. For instance, if you ask an employee to write a report without specifying the desired outcome, a perfectionist might spend an entire week crafting a comprehensive document when all you needed was a brief summary in an email by the end of the day.

This misalignment in expectations leads to frustration and inefficiency.

Own Your Part

Leaders often get frustrated at someone’s perceived poor performance or behavior and jump straight into feedback, criticism, performance management or even sacking. However, they frequently overlook that their lack of clear expectations or clear instructions is often to blame. Instead, they blame the employee for getting it wrong or not asking questions because surely, “they should know”.

This is where leaders must take personal responsibility and own the part they play. You can’t hold someone accountable if they don’t know what they’re being held accountable for. Before addressing your employee’s shortcomings, it’s crucial to reflect on whether the expectations were communicated effectively from the beginning.

You can’t hold someone accountable if they don’t know what they’re being held accountable for.

When it comes to behavior, the same principle applies. If you want your team to treat each other with respect, you need to clearly define what that looks like in practice and in different circumstances.

For example, what does it look like in a meeting? What does it look like when you have a disagreement? If it means active listening, timely responses and constructive feedback, make sure everyone is clear on this and has been equipped with the skills or training to do it.

Slow Down to Go Fast

One of the most common responses from leaders when encouraged to establish shared expectations is “I don’t have time”. I suggest you don’t have time not to.

Establishing clear expectations, where both parties are encouraged to ask questions and clarify shared understanding, sets everyone up for success. It may take an extra five-to-10 minutes at the start when you assign a task, but it will likely save you much more time in the end.

Clear expectations make leadership easier by providing a clear framework for accountability, and ensure the work is more likely to be done right the first time.

On top of this, employees are more willing to be accountable if they are clear from the outset about what they are expected to do. Clear expectations also make it easier for you to onboard new staff to your team who align with the desired standards.

It’s time that leaders reimagined accountability. The first accountability lies with them being clearer about expectations, as only then can leaders hold their people accountable for meeting them.

Leah Mether

Contributor Collective Member

Leah Mether is a speaker, trainer, facilitator and author known for her direct, enthusiastic and relatable style. With a background in leadership, corporate communications and journalism, Leah works to help leaders and teams improve their communication and self-management. Her clients represent a diverse range of industries, government agencies and businesses across Australia – including AGL, Optus, CFA, Energy Australia, Latrobe Community Health Services and the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action. As a proud Gippslander based in regional Victoria, Leah is passionate about supporting communities through industry transition. For more information visit https://www.leahmether.com.au/

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