Make expectations clear to boost team performance

I have sometimes found myself shaking my head when I hear about couples who didn’t discuss basic matters such as family size, religion, expectations surrounding work, and so on before getting married.  I recently listened to an interview with Dr. J. Richard Hackman, professor of psychology at Harvard, and this same phenomenon came to mind about how such often happens in a business setting.

Hackman mentioned what he considers one of the most important factors in teams that function at a high level.  In his opinion, it is very important for the team leader to be “up-front, going in, as to norms of conduct.”  This communication concerns expectations about what goes and what doesn’t go with respect to the group members as individuals or as functioning team members.   There needs to be clarity about how team members use each other’s expertise, and how the group will work together.    This was based on a study of 120 teams that were considered senior teams from around the world.

At first I was a bit surprised that this research ranked this as such an important factor.  After reflection, however, I did understand that this is key.  Why is this sometimes neglected?   Why do managers sometimes fail to provide direction on simple behavior between and amongst team members?  I think it’s because it feels a little too personal, maybe a little too touchy-feely.  It might be uncomfortable for some to make explicit that which they consider personal (even when it’s not really a personal topic).  Some may believe “I’m dealing with professionals and they will conduct themselves professionally, doing what is in the best interests of the company.”

If this research is to be believed,  we may need to rethink the assumption that all will be well without making these things to be explicit.   Some managers may think to themselves, “I’ll deal with a problem if it arises.”  By the time it arises, however, the team may have already begun to fracture. In fact, team members will appreciate, I believe, being given instructions about how they will all work together.   I’ve heard many colleagues express sadness over the inability of all to work closely together on projects.

I think it is a great idea for a leader to say, “Here is what I expect from you, and here is what you can expect from me.”  Do you expect your team members to help each other with time-sensitive problems?   Do you want them to specialize or to cross-train?  Do you want folks to show up to meetings having prepared in a certain way?  When is the best time for them to approach you and in what way?  All of this can be communicated with humor and good cheer, in the interest of working well together.   This doesn’t have to have the ominous feel of a parent contemplating a birds and bees talk.  Have fun with it!

In the workplace, we have the opportunity to increase our effectiveness and harmony by talking about expectations.  This is one easy way to eliminate misunderstandings and potential ill-feelings.

(By the way, Dr. Hackman’s Team Diagnostic Survey looks to be an interesting instrument for measuring a team’s ability to work well together.)


  1. Rob says:

    Randy – I picked up Dr. Hackman’s book and I find it very enlightening. Thanks for the reference.


    1. admin says:

      That’s great to hear, Rob! The Amazon reviews for the book are really good. It speaks well of you that you’re willing to put effort into understanding the principles of better teamwork.


  2. Richard says:

    Very good article. I just recomended the Hackman book for the library collection.

    I especially resonated with the line “There needs to be clarity about how team members use each other’s expertise”. I work on a team with a lot of folks who have the same basic job title but sometimes do very different things. The very few times there has been conflict, it usually boils down to a lack of understanding about how the work is divided to tap into everyone expertise. Thanks for sharing!


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