Setting Expectations

A critical step in managing a professional relationship is setting clear expectations from the outset. Whenever I begin a new reporting relationship, one of the first things I do is start a conversation about exactly that. As an employee, I want to know what exactly what I need to deliver to nail my performance review and merit a raise or even a promotion. Conversely, as a manager, clear expectations let me drive exactly the results I need, and help guide the performance management conversation when those results are not produced.

Regardless of whether I'm the manager or employee in the relationship, expectations are a two-way street, and the conversation should go both ways. As a manager, I'll begin by setting out expectations I have for the new direct report, but I'll also make sure to ask for the employee's expectations of me as a manager.

The conversation proceeds something like this:

The Basics

I expect you to work hard.

I expect you to give a crap*.

I expect you to be a respectful, collaborative member of the team.

I expect you to be a professional.

These are what I consider to be the basic expectations of anyone working for me, in pretty much any role. They are so basic that perhaps they shouldn't even need to be stated, but I like saying them out loud anyway.

*Perhaps there's a more professional way to phrase this, but I've yet to find one as effective in its forceful succinctness. Sometimes a little vulgarity, properly deployed, can be quite useful.

We're Only Human

I expect you're going to make mistakes.*

I expect you're not going to make the same mistake twice.

One of the things I love about software is our ability to improve our own working conditions by developing better tools, and to eliminate the possibility of future mistakes by automating away the manual steps where mistakes can take place. I expect every failure, every post-mortem, to be an opportunity to ask ourselves, what can we change to make sure this never happens again?

*Each level and role will have its own expectations around quality of delivery, as well as frequency/avoidability of mistakes.

Let's Fail Fast

When things aren't going to plan, or are taking longer than expected, I expect you to raise it with me or your team right away.

The earlier we know about difficulties encountered, the more options we have to plan around them. Maybe we are ok with it taking longer, but maybe we decide to ship less, or ship something simpler/different. Trying to work harder behind the scenes to be a hero is how software projects are unexpectedly late, and "unexpectedly late" is when management gets upset, precisely because we failed to adjust our plans earlier, when it could have made a larger difference.

Our relationship

You should expect that our conversations will be a safe place to vent about whatever, and that I won't hold information given in confidence against you or let it slip to others. But I also expect that it will take a little while for us to build up mutual trust to that point where you're comfortable with that expectation.

I want you to see me as an ally. I'm going to relentlessly advocate for my team, because the team is how we deliver value to the company. Whatever you need to be your best, to deliver your best work -- better tools, changes to process, time off, a different role -- please ask me. My job is to put you in the best position to succeed in delivering what the company needs.

Expectations for your Manager

And that's pretty much my speech, with conversational breaks for feedback and such. Following this, I want to hear from the employee what they expect from their manager. I've gotten a wide range of feedback over the years, from very common ("I expect timely feedback") to quite specific ("Please use [X method of communication] when the matter is not urgent, to avoid interrupting me and incurring a high cost for context switching").

I do sometimes get younger employees who've never even had occasion to articulate expectations to their manager; if they can't think of anything, I will offer some examples to start the conversation, drawn my personal expectations for my own manager. I don't think any of these are too much to ask, and indeed, there may be important items that I'm missing.

First and foremost, I want clear expectations regarding delivery.

I expect to communicate regularly.

I expect timely feedback, and will try and give it to you as well in return.

I want to be brought in on conversations/information necessary for me to make good decisions. Sometimes management decisions are closely held for good reasons, but hints as to what might be coming can be critical to prevent me and my team wasting time and resources on doomed efforts. I expect to earn the trust necessary to be taken into such confidence.

Finally, and this should go without saying, I expect to be treated as a human, and not a resource. I will always attempt to do the same for my team.

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