How to Communicate Expectations with Your Team: An Small Business Guide

As an entrepreneurship consultant who assists small and medium enterprises, I cannot stress enough the importance of communicating expectations to your team. Based on leadership expert John Maxwell‘s research, only 39% of employees can accurately name their organization‘s most important goals – a symptom of poor expectation setting. With unclear expectations, teams operate blindly without a concrete understanding of the outcomes their leaders need delivered.

Failure to properly outline expectations for your staff can be catastrophic for a small business. Without an understanding of deliverables and responsibilities, employees feel rudderless and morale plummets. Turnover typically follows, with disengaged team members leaving due to frustration. For an early-stage company, losing valuable talent can be a death knell.

In my decade advising startups and small teams, I have developed solutions to help business leaders effectively communicate expectations. By putting in the work early and revisiting often, you can align your staff behind your vision and empower them to help achieve it. Here are my top tips:

Be Overly Thorough with Initial Expectations

I recommend small business leaders write formal expectation setting documents for new hires and when kicking off new projects. While seemingly basic, I cannot tell you how many entrepreneurs I meet who fail to clearly articulate what they need delivered and by when. These documents should outline roles, required skills, specific deliverables, deadlines, and metrics used to define success. Leave no detail unaddressed no matter how minor – ambiguity is the enemy of aligned expectations.

For example, on a software project, I helped one of my clients created a development roadmap breaking down expected features and milestone delivery dates over a 12 month timeline. This guided the engineering team and prevented scope creep, resulting in an on-time product launch.

Continuously Reinforce Expectations

In 2020, research by talent management firm CEB found that 95% of employees need regular check-ins on goals and expectations, preferring once a week. I counsel my small business clients to over-communicate around aligned expectations, revisiting and reinforcing at company meetings, one-on-ones, and team calls.

Designate time in standing meetings for team members to raise expectation-related issues. An agenda item for an engineering standup could be "roadblocks to meeting sprint expectations." This provides a forum to surface frustrations and impediments early so you can course correct.

Customize Expectations Based on Personality

Not all employees interpret information the same way. When setting expectations, tailor your approach to individual learning styles and personalities. Some staff members need step-by-step written protocols while others thrive with verbal instructions. Motivate sales staff by emphasizing commissions tied to revenue expectations. Accommodate creative types by explaining how a deliverable gives them freedom to ideate.

Show team members how their work ladders up to big picture goals and they will bring more passion driving towards your overall vision. Customized explanations lead to deeper buy-in.

Solicit Feedback on Expectations

Once you have outlined expectations, do not simply demand acceptance. Soliciting feedback makes your staff feel valued in the process while uncovering valuable insights about potential gaps or blockers you did not consider.

In advance of a product launch, I helped a 50 person startup conduct a survey about their upcoming sprint expectations. With the anonymized feedback, leadership adjusted some unrealistic deadlines and reassigned stretched resources. This transparency and willingness to incorporate opinions maintained team trust through a chaotic period.

The above tips have helped dozens of startups and small businesses I advise effectively rally their teams behind common objectives. While expectation alignment takes work, the benefits to morale, productivity, and bottom line results make it well worth the effort for leaders of growing companies.

Let me know if any part of building aligned, achievement-enabling expectations with your staff remains unclear! I am happy to provide additional detail or examples from my decade advising leadership teams.