When performance expectations are unclear, everyone suffers — not just the employees, but also their coworkers, managers, and the business more broadly. If leaders aren’t doing a good job of setting clear expectations, how can employees be expected to deliver results?
A Lattice and YouGov survey of 1,000 UK employees recently found that most respondents are in the dark about what their employers expect of them. In this article, we’re going to dig into some of the key findings of that study to see how a lack of clear employee expectations can hamper performance — and what human resources teams can do about it.
5 Key Findings on Employee Performance Expectations
We wanted to learn more about how well UK employers are communicating their expectations to their employees. Here are the top five findings from our study.
1. UK employees don’t know what their employers want.
Just 1 in 5 UK employees say they always understand their employer’s expectations when assessing their performance — for example, during performance reviews, merit raises, or promotion cycles.
Gallup calls clarity of expectations “the most foundational of all engagement elements,” and their research shows that unclear workplace expectations make “all other engagement elements less impactful — employees cannot perform at a high level when they are confused as to what they are supposed to do.”
This lack of clarity has major implications for business success — not to mention employees’ job satisfaction, sense of belonging, stress levels, and wellbeing.
2. Strong HR systems help to create performance clarity.
Employees who are clear about workplace expectations are more than twice as likely to have regular growth conversations with their managers. They are also three times more likely to have performance metrics that they understand, as well as a career growth path.
In other words, to create performance clarity, you’ll need to utilise the HR systems and processes that ensure your employees know what top performance looks like at the individual and team levels. They’ll also need to be aware of how they can progress professionally and what skills they’ll need to get ahead.
3. Younger employees are struggling to understand what they should be doing at work.
When responses were compared across age groups, our data showed that older employees are clearer about workplace expectations than their younger counterparts.
This should worry employers because younger employees are more likely to leave their jobs in the next 12 months, according to PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2023. In an era when employees, and especially younger employees, have more options and more motivation to shift employers, clarity about performance expectations could also be a key factor in supporting retention and fostering job loyalty.
4. It gets harder to maintain clarity in larger businesses.
Larger companies find it more difficult to ensure clarity of performance expectations. Our survey found that micro businesses — those with fewer than 10 employees — were most likely to have consistently clear expectations: 30% of employees in those companies said they always understand what is expected of them performance-wise. In comparison, just 19% of employees in businesses with over 250 employees had that level of clarity.
Dave Carhart, VP of the People Strategy Group at Lattice, explains that, while larger companies are more likely to have established programs and processes for performance, this doesn’t necessarily translate into greater clarity. “The company is then large enough that a CEO and chief people officer need to rely on multiple layers of management to reinforce those expectations and make them real for employees,” he said.
5. Wellbeing and performance are closely intertwined.
Employees who feel their employer cares about their overall wellbeing are 71% less likely to experience a lot of burnout than those who don’t feel their wellbeing is supported, according to research by Gallup.
But unclear expectations about performance might be what's actually causing that stress and burnout in the first place. For instance, an employee who is receiving poor performance reviews is likely to feel stressed and worried about their job security. But what if the cause of the poor performance ratings is that the employee doesn’t really know what they should be doing or was never given specific deliverables?
Being clear about performance expectations can play a big role in bolstering employee wellbeing — which in turn drives better performance. When employees have a clearly delineated scope of job duties, they can have more certainty. Greater clarity means less stress, and less stress means they can perform better.
4 Ways Leaders Can Set Expectations More Effectively
While our research painted a picture of companies and employees struggling to get on the same page, there is hope. If you think your staff members are unclear about performance expectations, here are four steps you can take:
1. Empower and train your managers.
Individual employees are, of course, in charge of their own performance. However, it falls to managers to communicate performance expectations. According to our survey, employees who say they always understand what is expected of them are 2.5 times more likely to have regular career-focused conversations with their manager.
It’s always important for leaders to communicate and manage expectations with their teams, but it becomes increasingly urgent as companies grow. Carhart explains that, as businesses scale, senior leadership becomes more dependent on line managers to transmit their strategic vision and the employees’ role within it. “It becomes increasingly important then to assess manager effectiveness and enable them through an HR Business Partner model and a modern HR tech stack.”
To assess manager effectiveness on performance clarity, you could start by asking employees to rate their understanding of performance expectations. This will give you a benchmark and help flag any managers who are finding it difficult to explain what they want from their team.
As David Perring, chief insights officer at Fosway Group, recently shared in a Lattice webinar on creating a culture of high performance, “Training managers and individuals to own motivation and performance is essential. A manager’s inability to effectively align, motivate, recognise, and reward performance is why performance management frequently goes wrong.”
Offer your managers training on your performance rating system, so that they can explain it clearly and provide context to employees. You might also want to offer guidance on having effective performance conversations, so managers are able to walk team members through their expectations in a way that is clear and supportive.
2. Encourage regular performance conversations.
Scheduling regular check-ins and one-to-ones with employees ensures that they feel supported. It makes it easier for employees to keep track of their progress toward meeting expectations, and identify any potential problems or areas that aren’t as clear as they could be.
Lattice 1:1s allow managers and employees to schedule recurring meetings, collaborate on their agenda, take notes, and assign action points, so employees can be confident about what’s expected.
Don’t wait to have performance conversations when there’s a performance issue, cautioned Ben Richardson, director of Acuity Training. “Performance management is something that should be constantly assessed and revised, even if the employee is not lacking. It promotes healthy communication in the work environment,” he said.
Dave Carhart also cautioned that it’s not enough to have a conversation around expectations once and assume you’re all set. “As I’ve worked with executives and managers over the years, it’s very common to find situations where someone thinks they have communicated really clear expectations, but an employee hasn’t received it. Sometimes the communication wasn’t clear and sometimes it was but an employee is just totally missing the message.”
Carhart continued, “Most often, however, no one is truly ‘failing.’ Rather, when dealing with new or changing expectations, humans just need repetition. Leaders often fail to re-communicate expectations and they also fail to really check for understanding and assume too much.”
3. Provide measurable metrics and goals.
Employers and employees need to be on the same page when it comes to performance expectations. The University of California, Berkeley Guide to Managing Human Resources stresses the importance of time-bound, verifiable, attainable, mutually understood, realistic expectations to set an objective benchmark for high performance.
Lattice OKRs and Goals can help leaders define unambiguous and accessible key performance indicators (KPIs) so your employees have a clear understanding of their job responsibilities, as well as how team goals connect to the bigger picture. Plus, Lattice lets you add and adjust each goal’s timeframe to ensure that employees can contribute to company goals at a reasonable pace, which can help avoid burnout.
When considering performance metrics, Carhart said to not “only consider ‘what’ someone achieved, but also ‘how’ they achieved it.” A performance management system should ensure employees are recognized for “demonstrating the values and behaviours that are most important to your company,” he explained. For instance, if your company values customer-centricity, then a sales rep who hit their numbers by going above and beyond to help their prospects should be recognized. A sales rep who hit their target by using sleazy sales tactics should not.
4. Adapt as you scale.
As our research indicates, all this gets harder as your business grows. Carhart advised growing businesses to pay close attention to this issue and ensure their manager training, HR tech stack, and people strategy are regularly reviewed as they scale up.
This does not mean changing the rating structure every year, Carhart noted. “It takes multiple review cycles to get everyone in the organisation aligned around the meaning.” Instead, Carthart advised larger companies to “recognize that a review cycle is only one aspect of managing performance, and invest in manager skills around providing real-time feedback and coaching.”
Saad Alam, CEO of Hone Health, advised large companies to couple this strategic approach with “frequent, quick, personalised feedback and guidance to increase your team’s engagement and productivity.” Keeping things friendly and personable as you grow (rather than allowing too much standardisation to creep in) can help maintain performance clarity while scaling up.
High-Performance Organisations Are Clear About What They Want
Building a high-performance organisation involves cultivating a workplace culture that values transparency about employee performance and how it is measured. When employees know what is expected of them, they are more likely to deliver to, or even exceed, those expectations.
For a step-by-step guide to building a wellness program that drives high-performance, download our free workbook, HR’s Guide to Balancing Performance and Wellbeing.
Having the right people management platform is essential for communicating clear performance expectations at scale. From scheduling regular one-to-ones to defining career growth paths, Lattice can make all the difference in how your employees understand their performance expectations, which can contribute positively to their wellbeing in the long term. To find out more, request a demo.