How to Help Managers Set Actually Clear Expectations

Make feedback a winning habit on your team.

Written By

Picture of Lauren Humphrey

Lauren Humphrey

Co-founder of Tandem

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Unclear expectations are the root of all (ok most) problems for managers and HR. They lead to misalignment, poor performance, hard conversations, employee dissatisfaction and can ultimately lead to regrettable churn or terminations. On the flip side, hyper clear expectations that are understood and agreed upon by the direct report and manager set the stage for high performance and strong employee engagement. Check out our guidance on how to help managers set hyper clear expectations, with all the right parts, in order to achieve high performance.

Table of

Expectation Formula 

Clear expectations have six core parts that work together to ensure there is alignment on what success looks like. Ask your managers to craft clear expectations including each part. For ease, they can follow this script. 

We agree that you will accomplish ________ result (what, metric/milestone) with ________ people (who, if applicable) by displaying _______ skills/behaviors (how) by _________ time (when – due date) with check-ins on ________ dates (when – check-ins) because _________ (why, motivation/context).

Parts of the formula

Each part of the Expectation Formula plays a critical role in ensuring the direct report and manager are clear on what success looks like. If one part is left out or assumed, it can lead to misalignment.   

  • What, metric/milestone – What is the goal, metric or milestone that is supposed to be achieved? Telling other people what to do is usually something we humans are pretty good at, but it is incredibly important to think through how specific managers can get here.
  • Who – Who needs to do this and be involved? Is it an individual or group project? Are there stakeholders to include?
  • How – How should the work be done? Are there specific behaviors or skills to display while performing this expectation?
  • When (due date) – Exactly when (date and time) is this expectation due? If your company works across multiple time zones, be sure managers include the time zone. 
  • When (check-ins) – When will the manager check-in with them? If this is not defined, check-ins could start feeling like micromanagement.

Why – Why is this work important? Ensure your managers give their direct reports motivation and context. This could be motivation towards a promotion or could be context as to why the work is important to the company. Not all work is glamorous and managers don’t have to pretend that it is, but direct reports should understand why the work needs to be done.

When to use the formula

Clear expectations should be aligned on at the following moments – 

  • In the job description (arguably one of the most important expectations)
  • On the first day 
  • At each 30, 60, 90 day onboarding check-in (during ramp period)
  • Quarterly (after ramp period)
  • As the role or priorities change 
  • If something new is added to the plate


If clear expectations are the solution to all (ok most) of our problems, then why don’t all of our managers just do it? There are a couple things that can get in the way. 

Fear of micromanagement 

For some managers, this level of specificity can feel like micromanagement. However, micromanagement usually comes as a result of not setting expectations in this way. If the manager and direct report are aligned on hyper clear expectations, then the manager won’t have to jump in and out of their work to continually realign poorly understood expectations. Helping managers understand that it is actually the lack of hyper clear expectations that leads to micromanagement, can help them get onboard with the practice. 

Consistency in setting and resetting expectations 

Expectations are not a “set and forget” action. They need to be set and reset often as priorities, roles and skills change. Managers should keep expectations at the top of 1:1 documents and review quarterly and as work/roles change. While this can feel daunting, managers who understand how critical clear expectations are will end up saving themselves (and HR) loads of time and heartache down the road. 

Putting it all together 

Clear expectations are at the heart of every great high performing team because everyone knows what success looks like and how they will get there. Expectations take some upfront work from the manager, but they ultimately save everyone time and energy and lead to stronger performance and engagement. The Expectation Formula ensures there is a plan for clarity and success. Give it a go with your managers!