The unspoken makes a workplace toxic, unpleasant, and unproductive.
This is particularly bad when unspoken expectations exist in the relationship between a team leader and their team—when one person wants something – but the other person doesn’t know what they want. Clarity is foundational to productivity. Without it there is frustration and stress. It is vitally important that each employee has a clear understanding of their role responsibilities.
Our research says that about half the workforce would like more clarity about what is expected of them. In our experience role clarity is a core foundation for high work performance.
For there to be clarity there must be agreement. Both parties need to understand fully what is being agreed upon. There is nothing better than to do this together through writing down the shared expectations of the working role functions so there are no surprises for either party.
Working with our many clients, we captured the challenges and insights in the following diagram.
Clear Agreed Expectations Quadrant Diagram
This has been a useful tool to engage in team discussions on the importance of clarity in team expectations. Here are the four zones:
1. Clear challenges — getting highly productive results.
Peak performance is achieved when a team leader has high expectations, that ARE clearly articulated and agreed upon. This is when employees completely comprehend: what they are expected to achieve, why it is important, when it is needed, and how their work fits in with the big picture. Great leaders engage their team in conversations, continuing to ask, listen and clarify what they are all doing collaboratively. This is a great place to work.
2. Bored compliance — achieving the minimum requirements.
Sometimes there are low expectations, that ARE clearly articulated and agreed upon. This can occur easily in high compliance areas where there is lots of paperwork, checklists, policies and standards—but where such compliance is not highly regarded. Sometimes a leader gets easily distracted and leaves the details to others resulting in staff who are unmotivated and doing the minimum to get by.
3. Set-up to fail — getting unpredictable results.
When a team leader has high expectations, that are NOT clearly articulated (so cannot be agreed upon). The team cannot succeed as the goalposts keep moving. In this environment of unspoken expectations no one can get it right. The leader is always angry that no one “gets it” and the workplace becomes hypercritical, quick to correct, but unhelpful in leading people forward. This becomes a toxic working environment where people “hunker down” and live in fear of being blamed or being fired.
4. Frustrating chaos — getting poor results.
This is the ultimate leadership failure. When there are both low expectations, that are NOT clearly articulated (so cannot be agreed upon). When the team leader doesn’t know what they want, and is disengaged they create anxiety and stress for all. Everyone tries to be a mindreader to figure out what is going on and people feel like they have stuff to do but don’t know why they are doing it or whether it is effective. This is a frustrating, high stress environment, resulting in poor business outcomes.