I have long believed that operating in the dark with regard to what your supervisor expects of your management performance, is a lot like walking around in the dark in a strange hotel room at 3:00 in the morning; sooner or later you are going to get hurt.
Thus, a critical necessity for any manager is the need to reach some basic understanding with your boss concerning their expectations for your performance. Some bosses will make this easy by taking the initiative, while others will not. If your boss does not, the initiative must be yours.
The key is for you to develop confidence that you have a clear sense of the goals, objectives, and metrics that will serve as the basis for judging your performance. In many cases your boss will not be very specific which opens the door for you to press for a little more than: “I expect you to do a good job”; “make your numbers”; “just keep things running as smoothly as they are”; or “just fix what’s broken”.
It is always helpful to know what a good job looks like to your boss, what constitutes a smooth operation in their view, what numbers matter most, or what exactly do they think is broken? Achieving this clarity may take a few conversations but the goal is worth it because you are helping to determine the criteria against which you will be judged. In addition, as much as possible, your aim should be to define these expectations in observable and measurable terms. “I’ll know it when I see it” may sound cute but leaves you with an invisible target to aim for.
The best managers think of this process as a negotiation. While in the end, your boss get’s to have the final say concerning how your performance will be judged, you want the end result — as much as you can influence it — to be a set of observable and measurable criteria you feel confident you can achieve. No sense trying to impress your superior by agreeing to criteria that you already know are beyond your reach.
Now let’s look the second part of setting expectations; the follow-up. The best managers understand that the onus is on them to make sure the boss is kept up to speed on their progress toward agreed upon objectives. This is especially true when things are not going as smoothly as your boss originally thought and you need to make some changes, or when you conclude that your numbers are no longer realistic, or when what you think needs fixing is not what your boss had in mind. Expectations are usually malleable and my need adjusting over time. The goal is to avoid surprises on either side.
I encourage honest, straight-forward, and frank conversations with any boss regarding expectations and performance issues. I discourage complaining, whining, or misleading. Telling it straight — the good and the bad — usually works out best in the long run. It is also wise to remember that if you work for a good manager, he or she will not expect you to be perfect or to never make mistakes. But they will expect you to fix what you break and to learn from the mistakes you do make.
Finally, the best managers are those who invariably try to consider the performance expectations placed upon their boss. To the degree that meeting your performance expectations helps the boss meet theirs, you forge a mutually reinforcing partnership that helps you both.
*This article is also rendered as a podcast on Spotify: “Insights on Managing & Leading”.