To have positive relationships with people at work and home, it’s important to set clear expectations. Except many of us get in trouble with this concept because we confuse expectations with unrealistic expectations—and we often don’t even realize it.

Today, I want to tell you about why expectations often lead to disappointment and how leaders can set clear expectations for positive results.

The dark side of expectations: disappointment

I recently spoke to a woman who was disappointed in her son because he wasn’t living up to her expectations. When I asked her to tell me more about the situation, the whole story came out. The most important element of her story was hardly a surprise: It turns out her son was oblivious to his mother’s expectations. How could he meet them, if he didn’t even know about them?

When we set expectations inappropriately, we wind up disappointed in ourselves or others—and possibly feeling guilty—which puts a damper on important relationships. You get disappointed and the other person feels bad they’ve disappointed you—and maybe even resents the unearned disappointment.

Expectations lead to disappointment when we:

· Set unrealistic expectations.

· Fail to communicate our expectations.

· Set expectations for others when it would be better to mind our own business.

· Allow perfectionism to rule.

As a leader and parent, I’ve set my share of unrealistic expectations and that’s one reason I know there’s a much better way.

How leaders can set expectations in relationships without disappointment or guilt

When you’re in a relationship with someone—personal or professional—it’s perfectly natural to have expectations, especially if you’re a leader.

Six steps to setting clear expectations as a leader:

1. Clarify your desired outcome – Take a diagnostic approach to any conversation that involves expectations. Ask yourself what the desired outcome is, if it’s realistic and if it matters how you achieve it. If your expectations aren’t realistic, be open to hearing other people’s ideas about what can be done to achieve their desired outcomes.

2. Remove your ego from the process – If you’re in a leadership position, your role is to lift other people up and guide them towards success. Don’t let your ego get in the way by insisting your people do the task the same way you’d do it. Instead, be open to possibilities while your team learns.

3. Communicate your expectations clearly to the other party – If this is a work situation, let your team know what you expect. For example, if you delegate a presentation, tell your team what details you’d like included rather than leaving them guessing. For example, “I’d like the presentation to include our team’s revenue target and a status update on each of our four revenue-generating programs.”

4. Confirm your expectations are understood – The conversation doesn’t end when someone on your team says, “Got it.” Instead, ask them to rephrase their understanding of what you said. You can use clarifying questions like, “What’s your understanding around my expectations for this presentation?” and “When I said include status updates, what does that mean to you?” This is the common ground that supports the success of both parties. Relationships have less friction when expectations are clearly communicated and both parties agree to them.

5. Check in for a progress update– While the project is underway, ask about progress by saying, “What are your ideas so far?” or “What obstacles are you facing right now?” This gives you an opportunity to revisit expectations if necessary.

6. Celebrate success and lessons – If you do the steps above, your end-of-project conversation can focus on celebrating what went well and learning from what didn’t. This is a much more powerful leadership conversation than one that focuses on avoidable disappointment.

It’s faster to skip all the steps above and simply bark out an order like, “Bring me the sales presentation on Friday!” But that’s not leadership. Leadership is about setting clear expectations to build trust and set people up for success together.


Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: Coaching, Networking, Peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website or book a free 30-minute consultation with me.