I know you think you’re a good communicator but I’d bet you $100 that, when it comes to setting employee expectations, you aren’t as clear as you think you are. No matter how good you are — you could be better.

It’s not entirely your fault.  You have several strikes against you.

  • Agencies tend to attract very strong willed, opinionated people. They’re tough to manage.
  • You probably grew up in the agency world and you miss being “one of the gang” so there’s a part of you that manages in a way that at least you’re a popular boss.
  • You are wearing a lot of hats and since the employee issues are rarely on fire like the client ones are — it’s an easy bullet to dodge

But here’s the problem. When people don’t know exactly what is expected of them…

  • The great ones leave because they want to be part of a team that is very clear about where it’s going and they want to contribute somewhere
  • Or — the great ones stay but over time, lose their drive and become mediocre
  • The mediocre ones will never rise to the occasion and become great
  • The crappy ones stay because you never ask too much of them

How’s that for team building?

Worst of all — you deal with it in a very passive aggressive way.  You give vague directions and then you’re angry that they don’t behave in the way that you want.  Or an employee steps out of your perception of how your employees should behave but you don’t give them the feedback.  You just get angry about it.

See if these sound familiar.  “I handing him a book and said ‘it’s a great read and I’d like to talk to you about it when you’re done with it.’ and three weeks later — it’s still sitting on his desk.  If my boss had handed me a book, I would have spent the weekend reading it!”

“I asked for a recommendation and all I got was “I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ Where’s the “but instead I think we should do X?”

“We were in the middle of a meeting when she got up and excused herself because she had a pilates class to teach and couldn’t be late.  I was so flabbergasted, I didn’t know what to say.”

“My people routinely leave at 5:30 or 6, whether the work is done and deadlines are honored or not. I’m so tired of this sense of entitlement.  When I started in the business, we worked until we were done.  I ate a lot of pizza at the office after hours.”

With these unclear employee expectations, you end up resenting your own employees and that resentment festers.  We’ll leave the whole entitlement issue for another post because it demands its own focus.  But…. here’s the part in all of this that you own.

Get over it.  You’re the boss and you need to communicate like one.  No more hinting.  No more assuming everyone would do it because you’d have done it.  No more testing them to see if they step up.

You may not be their favorite person for a bit.  But in time, they’ll come to appreciate that they always know where they stand. They’ll know you are fair and setting them up to succeed.  And they’ll know how to deal with you, because you will be modeling a behavior they can mimic.

Be crystal clear with your employee expectations:  If you want someone to do something specific, then be specific when you ask.  “Hey, I’d like you to read this book by next Thursday and be ready to discuss how we might implement some of the ideas. Is that doable for you?”  Don’t hint, assume or test.  Just say it.

It’s your shop, set the rules:  Every tribe, organization and family needs rules and boundaries.  So no matter how you think of your agency and your people — they actually need you to set the game up so they can win.  No one can win a game if they don’t understand what’s out of bounds.  If your belief is that no deadline is optional and you stay until the work gets done, then say that.  Out loud.  In the employee manual.  In their reviews.  In your hiring process.  In your recognition of your superstars.

Rinse and repeat:  To actually be clear with your expectations, you’re going to have to articulate them again and again. First, your employees are going to think this is another one of your phases and it will pass like all the others have.  Second, they’re not going to like everything you have to say.  So they’re going to test you, to see how serious you are about it.  Third, They are suffering from information overload just like you are.  They’re going to need to hear it over and over.

Course correct quickly and often: Your employees probably aren’t perfect. They need coaching and they aren’t going to get better if you just grumble in your own head about something they did or didn’t do.  Do it respectfully but with some oomph.  Don’t pussy foot around — say it straight so they get it.

Own it but don’t hide it:  Some of the things that your employees do or don’t do that really rubs you the wrong way may be your own little idiosyncrasy.  So you dismiss it and tell yourself to let it go.  Wrong.  Even if it’s silly — it is impacting the way you interact with your team.

Years ago, after handing out bonuses and barely getting an acknowledgement from most of my team, I called them in and said “I totally get that this is my issue. But I was raised that when you got a gift or someone went out of their way for you, you wrote them a thank you note. When I give you a bonus or extra time off or do something for you that I don’t have to do and you don’t even acknowledge that I did it, I have to tell you — it makes me not want to do it again.  So while it may seem silly to some of you — I expect you to say thank you.  It doesn’t have to be a handwritten note but there does need to be a recognition that you know I just extended myself to you.” 

Today, more than a decade later — I get thank you notes every time.  Now, it’s part of the agency culture and they do it with each other, with clients and with me.

If you start communicating employee expectations with the goal of 100% clarity (which means being specific, measurable, and time bound) you’re going to see a few things happen.

  • Your star performers will surprise you with how good they can be with a little direction
  • Your mediocre players will either rise to the occasion or they will self select out
  • You will be forced to fire the crappy employees (which you should have already done) because they will demonstrate that they either can’t or won’t meet your expectations.

Overall, your team will be stronger and they will begin to model your behavior among themselves so there will be less bickering and drama

The only down side — you won’t be part of the gang anymore.  But right now, you’re the only one who thinks you are part of the gang.  They are very aware that you’re the boss, no matter how much they like you, how much they hang out with you or how generous you are with them.

So it’s time to step up and be the boss in a better way.  Get very clear with your expectations and I think you’re going to be surprised and happy with the results.