Setting Expectations: #1 factor, 1% rule, and 3 key elements

setting expectations May 12, 2022

When it comes to setting expectations, you may have had an experience like this:

Your manager assigns you a project. Not just any project, a high-profile one that will give you exposure across the division. Excited and flattered all at once, you dig into the work, complete the tasks involved, and maybe even work late to nail it perfectly. Proud as a peacock, you deliver the goods, convinced that your efforts not only bore fruit, they manifested a proverbial orchard.

And boom – your boss announces, “This wasn’t what I asked for.”

Disappointed, you wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

Lucky for you, your boss tells you. But what she describes is not at all how you understood the assignment, and you think to yourself, “How was I supposed to know THAT? I’m not a mind-reader!”

Frustrated and embarrassed all at once, you pledge to yourself, “When I lead a team or project, I will never leave an employee feeling that way!”

Lack of setting expectations is the number one contributing factor to interpersonal issues on teams and with work deliverables.

And the secret to setting expectations clearly and effectively? Knowing what, when, and how to set them.

How to Set Expectations and The One Percent Rule

“Atomic Habits” author James Clear is a huge proponent of what he calls “The One Percent Rule,” meaning that success isn’t necessarily achieved by leaps and bounds but by incremental changes over time.

The first way to implement “The One Percent Rule” when setting expectations?

Set expectations one degree beyond what you think is obvious.

You may be tempted to think that “less is more” because you want to trust that your team members know more than they may give themselves credit for. You also don’t want to talk down to them or micromanage the work.

Those are noble thoughts, but trust me, “more is better” because more information leaves little room for error.

3 Elements of Setting Expectations that Set You and Your Team Up for Success

When it comes time to communicate your expectations, be sure to include the following three things:

Purpose. Explain why your team members are doing whatever it is you’re asking them to do. Be sure to show them the bigger picture. Say something like “This matters because...,” and fill in the details of how their role or work contributes to the bigger plan or goal. This phrase is also a handy way to check your own understanding of why the work matters and what is truly the most crucial element for success.

Essential criteria. Explain to your team members what you expect in terms of the level of accuracy, level of data, deadlines, brand expectations, and so on. Let them know what the must-haves are and be upfront about who will need to be involved. If you have a budget for them to spend, let them know, and be sure to get as much clearance as you can to allow them to have authority over the project.

Desired results or outcomes. Your team will be more likely to present you with a final report or product that is on brand and detailed and can be used with minimal editing or changes when you give them clear expectations of the result you want. For example tell them if you want the report it in PowerPoint or Adobe, with or without graphics, what kind of visuals, etc. And if you have a sample or template to share that is even better!

The Wrap-Up

Setting expectations isn’t micromanaging. It’s arming your people with what they need to be successful and it’s one step more than most emerging leaders take when setting expectations with their teams.

Give this model a try and see what results you see. I bet it’s (at least) one percent better than what you’ve experienced as a team member!

Ready to get your team and projects aligned for success? 

Get your guide to clarify the what, when and how of setting expectations.


What if you never had to rework a project again?

Download the Setting Expectations Guide now to learn the what, when, and how of setting clear expectations for work outcomes and team behavior.