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Improve your working relationship with your reports and manager by reaching agreements together instead of holding them to unspoken expectations.

It can be easy to feel disappointed when someone you work with lets you down, or a deliverable doesn’t meet your expectations. But understanding the distinction between expectations and agreements can prevent this from happening. Originally developed by business coach Steve Chandler, agreements are a transformational skill that will enable you to collaborate more effectively.

What do we mean by expectations?

Expectations are what we imagine and assume will happen in a certain situation. From expecting our trains to be on time, to expecting a promotion at the end of the year, expectations largely govern how we think about the progression of our own lives and relationship with others. 

But expectations are subjective. They are based on personal beliefs and past experiences and are heavily influenced by our current context. For example, considering how I typically handle my own email (personal belief) and previous experiences with others who have responded to my emails (past experiences), I might expect email responses within an hour. If I send you an email, the power of my expectation for your response is influenced by how important that email is to me right this second (current context). Now, based on your own beliefs, experiences, and context, you may consider a response within a day as more than reasonable.

Uncommunicated and misaligned expectations cause confusion, frustration, and diminished outcomes. In the case of the email, I might simply be annoyed at what I perceive as a tardy response from you. In a higher-stakes situation, a deal could be lost or a project delayed by not getting your response quickly. 

At work, most of us lead with uncommunicated or poorly communicated expectations. Among many other things, we expect our teams to complete tasks on time, communicate and code in certain ways, and meet subjective standards of quality. We expect that those we report to will read the docs we send them, know how to support us when things are hard, and respond positively when we give them feedback. And when people don’t meet all of these expectations, we experience disappointment.

What are agreements?

Agreements are clear, explicit, and wholly understood commitments that are co-authored by two or more people. Agreements are reached through open, honest, and direct negotiation, where unspoken expectations are voiced and everyone shares their needs. The most important hallmark of an agreement is that its outcome is owned equally by all parties.

Let’s revisit email responses. An open discussion about email response times would lead us to immediately see the delta between my expectation (1 hour) and yours (1 day). From that, we can discuss what a reasonable and possible agreement around email response might look like between us.

We might find a compromise that works for both of us. Or, if compromise isn't possible and I genuinely require responses within an hour, we could discuss adjustments in your current responsibilities to make that possible.

To solidify this as an agreement, the outcome must be shared. Full and equal commitment to the outcome means:

1. Full ownership. For email, that means if I foresee a situation where I won’t be able to fulfill our agreement (upcoming vacation, for instance), I will let you know ahead of time. If I don’t meet our agreement at any point, I proactively let you know that things went wrong; I check in on the impact of my not fulfilling my end of the deal; and then we either renegotiate to find an alternative timespan that will suit us both or recommit to our original agreement.

2. Holding one another accountable. This means acknowledging when an agreement hasn’t been kept even when it feels uncomfortable to do so. It also means naming and supporting one another if we suspect an agreement won’t be upheld. As shared owners of the outcome, both parties have a responsibility to call out potential risk.

Agreements are the building blocks of performance management between managers and their employees. When we have agreement-based conversations before embarking on tasks or projects – outlining the definition of success and identifying potential obstacles – we lay the groundwork to both support our reports and hold them accountable on their journey. By fostering mutual responsibility in these agreements we avoid simply delegating problems and leaving our reports to figure it out themselves. We are instead wholly committed to their success and we actively seek out opportunities to provide the coaching and mentoring they need to succeed.

Examples of agreements

Let’s look at common scenarios where we can transform expectations into possible agreements. 

When a direct report isn’t keeping you informed of progress 

If a direct report isn’t openly communicating with you on the progress of their tasks and you often find yourself surprised by delays, open the floor for discussion. First, lead with facts. Detail the recent times when you thought something would be done and it wasn’t. Be straightforward with how it impacted the team’s delivery and you as their manager. It’s okay to express that you are often left feeling surprised when projects lag, or to mention any nervousness you feel giving them high-value tasks due to uncertainty on whether they’ll be delivered on time.

Next, get generous with your listening. Ask for their perspective and listen with genuine curiosity to hear and understand their side of the story. A multitude of factors could be bringing about their suboptimal performance, so getting clarity on the blockers that are preventing them from delivering on time informs the ultimate agreement(s) you will make. 

Set the vision of what you want the situation to look like in your ideal world. What would it be like if you were both completely fulfilled by the work you’re doing together?

Finally, make new agreements that will make that vision possible. These will be unique to the specific situation, but in this example, it might look like:

  • I (the manager) will not assign you (the direct report) a task without an explicit due date.
  • You will document due dates for every ticket on your work calendar. You will include me on the invite list of those events so that we can both very clearly see when a deadline is approaching.
  • If you suspect a delivery date will not be met, your first action will be to alert me to the situation so that we can discuss it.
  • When I make a request of you, the possible responses are yes, no, or counteroffer. (Making it explicit that the answer to every request made doesn’t need to be yes can be a powerful driver for behavior change!)

Agreements for when your manager is micromanaging

First, share your experience of being micromanaged. Give specific details of times that your manager communicated or responded in ways that caused you to feel micromanaged and be straightforward with the impact on you. It’s okay to say, “I am concerned you don’t think I’m doing a good job” or “my internalized experience is that you don’t trust me.”

Ask for their perspective on the situation and listen with genuine curiosity on their take. Once you’ve understood their side of the story, share the desired result of what you want your working relationship to look like.

Co-create new agreements to make this vision a reality. These might look like:

  • I (the direct report) will vocalize to you (my manager) when I am feeling micromanaged. This will create the opportunity to calibrate our roles and responsibilities in real-time situations.
  • I will maintain a project tracker for my team’s work. You will check that tracker before asking me for a project status update.
  • When one of my projects requires a large decision, I will define the potential paths forward, make a recommendation on which avenue I believe is best, and then book a synchronous meeting with you to discuss and decide how to proceed together.
  • If you are getting pressure from above on one of my projects, you’ll vocalize that to me so I have context when something becomes more urgent or important.

Learn more

Having powerful conversations that lead to agreements can be hard at first, but it’s no harder than leading with unspoken or poorly communicated expectations and consistently finding yourself disappointed by the people around you. Collaborate more effectively by transforming some of your expectations into agreements.

Learn more about the distinction between expectations and agreements from Steven Chander and the impact of expectations on teams and companies in Lloyd and Jason Fickett’s quick read, The Collaborative Way.