Managing Workplace Expectations.

Clear contracting is an important process for business success. Contracting involves establishing mutual expectations, negotiating resources (budget, time etc) and developing ground rules or agreements for working together moving forward.

I view contracting as a continuous process in any business interaction involving an interaction/transaction between people. Continuous is an important distinction as many think of contracting as something you do only in the beginning of a business transaction. To my way of thinking, anytime an employee or colleague is taking on a task for you, the principles behind contracting apply.

I had an experience with a vendor this week that offers us a “best practice”-contracting contracting example. I called a well-known software provider for technical support this week (I was in “pain” making the call). From the moment a voice answered (albeit a recorded one), they were “contracting” by setting clear expectations, “your call will be answered in three minutes or less”. From the consumer perspective this is better than being put on what feels like terminal hold. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I wouldn’t be waiting all day for live help.

The first live voice that came on the line began by setting expectations and clarifying their “role” with me on the call, “I am here to first identify/assess your problem and determine who best in our system can help you…” From there she brought onto the line an expert in my “trouble” area. This software technician began by establishing expectations, explaining how much help he could provide (something along the lines of you get two calls with this product for up to x amount of minutes per use.) When he realized that my problem was going to require more time than allotted, he re-negotiated with me after hearing my distress, telling me since it was my first call into their system on a new product, he would take the extra time required to help me. This is important because had he not fixed my problem, I would have returned my product, as my customer expectation was it should work! After he finished walking me through step by step his solution to “fix” my problem, he asked if he had resolved my problem to my satisfaction, which gave me a final opportunity to identify and communicate any “missed” expectations.

Most failures in business are more failures in managing expectations than they are poor performance. The number one way to lose trust with customers, workplace colleagues or your boss is to not meet expectations. Defining realistic expectations up front can save you a lot of trouble, heartache and lost business on the back end.

From my coach’s perspective, most interpersonal workplace or business conflict is a result of missed or unclear expectations and can often be resolved with a return to “contracting” to re-negotiate or re-clarifying expectations when things go off course (preferably while they are still small).

My coach’s tips for contracting:

  • Think of sharing expectations as simply communicating what you want to have happen specifically in a future situation. Whenever you are giving a task to an employee or colleague, think of it as a contracting situation.
  • Don’t assume expectations are naturally shared or are clear. Take the time to clarify standards and success criteria up front. What does success look like and how will we measure it? Don’t assume that you agree on definition of words like “adequate” or “quality performance”. The same words often mean different things to different people. Spell it out—define your standards for words like clean.
  • Paraphrase or summarize when trying to understand expectations, “This is my understanding of your expectations of me on this project…”
  • Specify desired outcomes (quantify where possible)—who will do what by when and at what cost. Identify schedule and deliverables.
  • Define roles—“My role in the project will be to…” “Your role in this project will be to…” Identify who has decision -making authority and what level of support, and communication (frequency and form: face to face meetings/email/text/reports etc) will be needed.
  • Manage meeting expectations by contracting at the beginning of the meeting around how much time we have agreed to meet, the meeting objectives and/or agenda etc.
  • Lastly, ask if anything is unclear or confusing before walking away.

Team Leadership Skills

Teams have become critical to workplace success — they are everywhere in business today. Teams offer many advantages, including improved problem-solving capabilities with complex challenges, expanded creativity and synergies resulting in greater overall performance. While the benefits of high-performing workplace teams are well known, leading them effectively remains a tremendous challenge for many managers.

Working in a team environment can bring out the best — and the worst — in people. Individuals often struggle working cooperatively with each other and adapting to the variety of personalities, interpretations, opinions and varying skills of other team members. Many employees may have specific expertise or technical skills but can lack the “people” skills required to be an effective contributor in a team environment. Throw in competing agendas, office politics, limited resources and time pressures, and teams can be a recipe for trouble. It can be enough to make even the most seasoned manager cry out for help.

There is an art to effectively leading teams. It requires a specific skill set and a high level of emotional intelligence. Yet many managers have never been taught the necessary leadership, emotional intelligence, interpersonal and facilitation skills required to successfully lead a team. In a recent survey from the Center for Creative Leadership, marketplace leaders identified the ability to build effective teams and being collaborative as the top skills required for managers to be successful. Alarmingly, this same survey reflected that only 30 percent of respondents believed their leaders were currently skilled collaborators.

Succeeding at leading teams in a way that maximizes the performance potential of the individuals (often with competing interests and different approaches to conflict and problem solving) is a fundamental leadership challenge.

This is one of the reasons that high-performing teams tend to be the exception versus the rule. Successful companies almost always have them, whereas failing companies do not. Many managers are painfully aware that simply throwing a group of people together doesn’t mean they will necessarily jell as a team. Most teams fail to achieve their potential due to a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of clarity around team goals and objectives — and accountability to each other to meet those responsibilities (who will do what by when).
  • Ineffective decision-making and/or conflict resolution — either conflict is avoided or dealt with in a way that harms team performance.
  • Lack of trust between members.
  • Lack of emotional intelligence among members.

Facing these kinds of challenges is difficult, though certainly doable with the right help. Typical off-the-shelf team building solutions rarely address the heart of what’s wrong nor give individuals the skills they need (including the team leader) to fare well on their own. They may provide temporary cheerleading relief but rarely address the long-term issues.

Teams need effective leadership to get to a high-performance stage. It’s a team leader’s job to create the conditions for teams to be successful. These include:

  • Establishing structure — clear direction, objectives, decision-making, meeting processes and team member roles.
  • Establishing effective team norms (how we will solve problems, communicate openly, honestly and constructively with each other).
  • Setting a team emotional tone and environment to maximize collaboration and creativity and to ensure the team benefits from the talents of each member.

Team leaders need skills to work with (not against) competing interests, approaches and varying individual motivations. The most effective team leaders balance their time and attention between a) the task demands of the team and b) facilitating team processes (making continuous adjustments) to work better together (enhancing trust and camaraderie).

The best team leaders pay close attention to what is going on interpersonally and emotionally in their teams. They clarify for team members how their behaviors are affecting others (helping them to increase self-awareness) and support them in minimizing unproductive habits that hinder team performance. For example, if Joe has been interrupting Sharon repeatedly during meetings, the leader may note this and remind Joe that the rest of the team might benefit from hearing Sharon’s idea.

If you are a frustrated team leader, it may be time to call in expert help. There are resources to a) grow your skills in leading teams effectively and b) provide facilitation and coaching expertise to lead team sessions more productively and collaboratively.

Team Building Ground Rules

Many of my clients complain about their workplace teams. They often share common frustrations: wasted time spent in ineffective meetings, a lack of accountability, members not speaking the truth or being unwilling to call each other out for bad behavior. High-performing teams (in business or in sports) maintain high expectations, have clearly understood standards for behavior and hold each other accountable for results. They recognize that to achieve and maintain high performance levels will require both a disciplined and deliberate action plan.

Establishing team ground rules — collectively — that reflect desired norms of behavior can help serve as a self-policing method to overcome many typical team dysfunctions. These ground rules can be simple directives, such as “no cell phones or PDAs in meetings,” to overall expectations and guidelines, such as “everyone has a right to be heard.” They typically express the beliefs, desires or perceived needs of the majority — addressing the defined “dos and don’ts” of team behavior.

High-performing teams often use these team rules to resolve common performance challenges. While some leaders will attempt to mandate team ground rules, this is rarely an effective approach. Just because you make a rule doesn’t mean people will follow it (anyone have teenagers?). Wise leaders facilitate a team process that allows the team to identify how they will work more effectively together — and to co-create helpful team norms that will increase productivity and performance. People are more committed to follow norms they help create and also will be more likely to hold each other accountable to them. A great first question to ask is, “What expectations do team members have of each other?”

Having solid team ground rules can also help your team deal with problematic behaviors. We have all observed dysfunctional behaviors (someone constantly interrupting or getting the group off topic), and yet no one says or does anything. If no one intervenes, the behavior likely will continue. Many times the offender is not even aware that the behavior is a problem for others. Ground rules offer team members (and leaders) a useful way to identify, intervene and resolve dysfunctional team behavior. The first “golden rule” of team dynamics: Ignoring and not addressing bad behavior does not make it go away.

For example, if a team has agreed to a ground rule of being specific, when members make general statements like, “Some people don’t …” a team member can respond with, “One of our ground rules is to be specific; when you say ‘some’ people, exactly who are you talking about? ” Or if the topic of the meeting has been pulled off course (without the group agreeing), someone can intervene with, “I believe the team is off track. Does anyone else agree?” Reminding each other of team standards is an excellent way to encourage team accountability and improve performance.

It’s tough to cultivate accountability when expectations are ambiguous. In order to hold other members accountable, team members need to know what each other is working on. Have a check in at the beginning of meetings where team members update each other about their progress toward task goals. Again, peer pressure to account for your actions and results will help foster accountability.

Keep ground rules clear and member responsibilities out in the open so they aren’t ignored. A few key ground rules are better than a long list. Revisit them from time to time to see if they are still working or needed. If not, remove them or develop new ones.

All teams have norms that influence behavior. Just because they aren’t “formal” or explicit doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The key question is, are these norms helping or hindering the team? Good facilitators and leaders will help teams to surface their unconscious norms, identify their effect and allow the team to decide whether they are effective and still want to operate by them.


Here are some ground rules to consider:

  • It’s OK to disagree.
  • We challenge each other constructively; no personal attacks.
  • When we present problems, we also offer solutions.
  • No electronic disruptions.
  • When confused, ask.
  • Notify members if and when commitments can’t be met.
  • Leave meetings clear: Who will do what by when.
  • All members participate in problem solving — we value all perspectives.
  • Stay focused and on track.
  • One person has the floor at a time (no interruptions).

I am available for team building help:  360 682 5807.  My clients are all over the world, I coach via Skype or Facetime!

Team Building Stages

Being a member or leader of a workplace team can be a frustrating experience, particularly if your team is ineffective or routinely gets mired in unhealthy conflict.

Take comfort in knowing that all teams go through “stages” before reaching a level of high performance.

What follows is an outline of the typical stages a work team will go through, based on Bruce Tuckman’s group development model, and some practical tips for how to work through them.

Stage 1: Forming

Remember what it’s like attending the first meeting of a new team or group? People are often cautious, tentative and even nervous when they first come together. Members at this stage tend to politely focus on “safe” subjects (the weather) and avoid controversy as they get to know one another. Internally, people mull their concerns and judgments around trust, leadership and expectations (Is someone going to keep us on track and hold me/us accountable?).

During this “forming” stage, team leaders need to provide structure, direction, safety and order by:

  • Identifying methods and activities that help put the team at ease and get acquainted.
  • Letting members know why they have been chosen and what their role is.
  • Defining goals.
  • Establishing norms of acceptable team behavior, including your expectation that members will openly and respectfully voice their views and concerns.
  • Being transparent, genuine and open about how you lead a team (including how decisions will be made).

Stage 2: Storming

This stage can be very difficult — and those who naturally avoid conflict likely will be uncomfortable. The initial politeness of the forming stage gives way to risk taking, exposure of the “hidden agendas,” turf guarding and the emergence of conflict. Misunderstandings, confusion, tensions and emotions rise as members start testing the boundaries of power, decision making and control. This is the stage where the differences in individual attitude, perceptions, goals and skills (including emotional intelligence) tend to emerge — and they will! Yet, storming is both natural and necessary.

Leading a team through this stage can be trying for even the most seasoned leader. The most common reasons for storming are also the areas leaders need to focus on — including unclear roles, goals/expectations, lack of commitment/accountability, misunderstandings and improving the emotional intelligence of the team. Teams often get stuck at this stage and to get past it requires effective leadership and facilitation skills. Some leaders will need to make tough calls for the sake of team performance (those who are unwilling to be accountable or commit to the team should be culled).

Really stuck teams with potential and commitment may require outside facilitation help. To move past this stage leaders need to facilitate team process by:

  • Surfacing conflicts and getting issues out in the open.
  • Coaching team members to give each other constructive criticism and feedback.
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities — address any issues, concerns or confusion.
  • Re-establishing, clarifying or modifying team norms (ground rules) for working together effectively.

Stage 3: Norming

Teams that work through the storming stage are often rewarded with a calmer, more focused and collaborative team environment. Having learned productive ways to work through their differences, creativity and team camaraderie emerges.

The focus now shifts to how we will accomplish our work together. There is more sharing of information, less turf guarding and renewed focus on how to accomplish team goals collaboratively. Leader “to-dos” during this stage:

  • Identify individual members’ strengths and weaknesses — and how members can support one another more effectively.
  • Focus on improved processes — including decision making, planning, tracking and accountability.
  • Encourage expanded team building/camaraderie, pride and acknowledgment.

Stage 4: Performing

Not all teams will make it to this stage. Those that do will experience the pride, energy and excitement that comes with team unity, creative synergy and accomplishment. Teams that reach this stage are highly productive with an emphasis on achievement of team goals and an environment of high trust, morale and loyalty. They balance time and attention spent on a) task and b) fostering team trust and ways to work better together. Having knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, team members support experimentation (such as adjusting team members’ roles to the changing needs of the team or individuals). Most important, team members can engage in productive debate to determine best solutions. Recommended actions to stay in this stage:

  • Debrief regularly how well the team is working with each other.
  • Re-evaluate team member roles and plans.
  • Build in rewards and fun to keep morale high.

The intensity and duration of these stages vary depending on the team, leadership skills and situation. Some teams can hit the performing stage in a matter of weeks; for others it can take months. Others will never hit it. Whenever a team takes on a new member or loses one, it naturally recycles back to Stage 1.  I can help you with team coaching and building your ability to coach a high performing workplace team;  360 682 5807.  I coach via Skype or Facetime anywhere in the world.