Tips for Effective Expectations Setting

Setting shared expectations contributes to team functionality. Shared expectations help people know how to interact and how to address conflict ahead of time. These six tips can help your group set effective expectations.

1) Collaboratively establishing expectations increases buy-in and inclusion.

Group leaders may be tempted to tell a group what the expectations are, but when groups establish expectations collaboratively, the expectations tend to be more successful. Individual members of the group are more likely to buy-in and follow expectations if they were able to contribute to determining those expectations. Additionally, where some members have particular needs and interests, considering and incorporating those needs and interests from the beginning creates a more inclusive and manageable team for everyone. Ideas for collaboratively establishing expectations:

  • Invite group members to consider, “What do you need to be successful in this environment?”
  • Give opportunities for people to contribute directly (conversation or chat thread) and anonymously (JamBoard or survey tool).
  • Invite everyone to develop their own “expectations” document. Then, use the individual documents to build the final group document.

2) Affirmative expectations increase clarity.

We often shorthand our expectations by highlighting behavior that we wish would stop, perhaps because stopping that behavior seems most pressing in the moment. When developing long-term expectations, however, describing the behavior you expect is usually more effective than describing the behavior you hope will stop.

For example, you might hope for a group expectation of “no yelling.” While this might be a reasonable expectation, an expectation that is phrased something like, “Only in emergencies involving physical harm should voices be raised above typical conversation level,” is likely to help avoid several other potential concerns.

3) Specificity and objectivity increase shared understanding.

Giving brief and general expectations like “Be respectful” is tempting because doing so seems easy and comprehensive. These vague expectations often lead to confusion and miscommunication. In a community like GW, where so many connections happen across culture, ability, and personality, being specific and objective is helpful to developing shared expectations. So, instead of having an expectation that people will be respectful, outline the specific behaviors that you’re seeking and describe them in neutral and objective terms. So, for example, “be respectful” might divide into several pieces, which could include expectations like, “Listen until others are done before taking your turn to speak,” “Maintain privacy of group discussions by not identifying who said what,” and “When a conflict occurs, address it directly and privately, especially avoiding public accusations, including on social media.”

4) Agree on a plan for addressing divergence from expectations.

Inevitably, someone in your group will struggle or fail to meet an expectation. When this divergence from expectation occurs, it can be upsetting. Still, if you address plans for such divergences ahead of time, they’re easier to manage. So, as you set up expectations, outline what you expect from members if they diverge from expectations. How can they repair that harm in meaningful ways? Similarly, outline what you expect members to do if they notice someone else is diverging from expectations. Should they raise that individually and privately with the other person? Should they report it to some positional leadership? Often, that will vary somewhat depending upon the expectation that was not met. Don’t try to come up with a procedure for every scenario, but some general guidelines will go a long way in managing issues as they arise.

5) Adapt for inclusion, rather than consistently excusing or ignoring violations of expectations.

When a group member fails to meet expectations, resist the temptation to excuse or ignore it. However, it’s possible that you may need to modify the expectations. Perhaps an original expectation was that members would attend 100% of meetings because it was essential to keep everyone involved and informed during the group’s initial development. But, as membership expanded, that became hard to manage in terms of scheduling and space. Rather than have missed meetings go unaddressed, consider modifying expectations to maintain the key goal of keeping everyone involved and informed. As one example, you could modify a 100% attendance expectation with the expectation that members who miss the meeting need to read minutes and provide responses to questions in the written minutes.

6) Renewing the commitment saves confusion, especially in times of turnover.

Especially as group membership changes, reviewing and revising the expectations is important. You may find that words and phrases that were very meaningful when a group initially set expectations aren’t very guiding now. You may find that the group’s demographic make-up has changed and so different or differently phrased expectations are helpful. Whatever the shift, using an existing set of expectations as an initial point of discussion to revisit expectations is a good regular practice.