When you think of performance management, chances are good you picture an annual sit-down between a manager and an employee. They discuss what the employee did wrong in the past year, what they might have done right, and what the company expects of them moving forward. It’s a pretty negative situation overall, which is one reason that annual performance reviews are so ineffective.

To see real change, we need to evolve beyond the annual or quarterly review. We need to realize that real performance management must take place much more frequently. Quite a few companies have made the shift to monthly or even weekly check-ins and conversations, and the results have been amazing. However, that’s not the end of things.

Performance management isn’t always about what an employee is doing right or wrong, or whether they’ve been provided with the right learning and development tools. In some cases, it comes down to what the management team is doing in terms of setting expectations. If there’s a lack of clarity here, you can expect performance to suffer.

There’s good news – you can drive performance improvement with better clarity of expectations. What should you know? We’ll explore that below.

Expectations: The Guiding Rules

Expectations are everywhere. You expect employees to perform their stated job functions. You expect them to handle the pressure. You expect them to let you know when they need help.

You expect them to take whatever opportunities for development that might present themselves. You expect, you expect, you expect…but do you actually come right out and state those expectations, clearly and succinctly? If not, then there’s simply no way that your employees will live up to your performance anticipations.

The solution here isn’t as simple as just using clearer language or formalizing job duties. It requires a deep dive into how your company does things and how you manage performance. To see meaningful change, you must rethink things.

What Are Your Expectations?

Before employees can live up to your expectations, you need to communicate them. To do that, you need to know what they are. That means you need to sit down and codify what’s expected in all areas, particularly in terms of employee challenges, performance improvements, and learning and development opportunities.

With that being said, you cannot simply state that XXX is our expectation. Each of your expectations needs to be based on an underlying foundation. For instance, what goal does the expectation support? What challenges does it involve? What resources are available to ensure that the expectation is even possible?

Too often, leadership simply sets out broad mandates in terms of expectations for employees but fails to give much thought to how employees will live up to those expectations. It is your responsibility as a leader to ensure that the framework is there. After all, if you don’t build the ladder, how will your team climb it to reach an expected outcome?

Spend as much time as necessary designing your ladder. Provide a framework for success. When you do, you’ll find that your employees intrinsically want to come to work and do a great job. They want to excel and succeed. They want to help you build a stronger company and deliver improved outcomes to customers or clients.

Using Check-Ins to Clarify Expectations

One powerful tool to help you clarify expectations is the check-in model of performance management. Holding regular check-ins and sit-downs with employees can help you address performance-related issues in real-time, deliver constructive feedback that provides timely advice and guidance, and ensures that meaningful course correction can occur.

However, understand that for check-ins to help clarify expectations, they must occur regularly. We recommend having them as often as possible – once per week would not be too often. Frequent check-ins also ensure that you’re (usually) able to prevent serious divergences between employee performance and company expectations.

Conversations Can Help, Too

Communication within a business is a two-way street. Business leaders should have an ongoing conversation with employees to help communicate expectations and how the company’s long-term vision continues to evolve. Employees are then more motivated to excel, and leaders also gain insight into fostering greater accountability for performance and outcomes.

Using Recognition to Clarify Expectations

Recognition is usually seen as a reward for meeting or exceeding expectations. That’s true, as least as far as the employee who’s being recognized is concerned. However, employees don’t exist in a vacuum. Others will see that recognition, and you can use that as an opportunity to help clarify expectations for a team or even an entire department.

To make that work, you cannot simply say that “Janet really exceeded our expectations. In recognition of that, we’re giving her two extra paid days off this month”. You need to drill down into what it was that Janet did, what the expectations were, and how her performance exceeded them.

Stay on the Same Page

Expectations aren’t static. They’re dynamic, evolving with your business over time. However, you need to ensure that this evolution is communicated to your team; otherwise, things are going to fall apart.

To achieve this, you need to ensure that you’re communicating not just wins, but also goals and challenges, and then update those as they change. You’ll find that doing this not only keeps employees and managers on the same page where expectations are concerned, but also provides positive reinforcement (by celebrating successes) and helps employees ask for resources, help, and guidance when expectations change.

Build a Strong Foundation and the Rest Will Follow

Business leaders need to create a strong foundation in terms of corporate culture and the realization that expectations and goals evolve. Be committed to communicating those changes regularly. Have those conversations. Check-in with employees. Recognize success and use those opportunities to further clarify expectations. Commit to accurate communication and create a culture that celebrates learning and development and you’ll find that everything else falls into place.