Communicating performance expectations

This section prepared for People In Aid by Joan M. Johnson, 2008

As a manager of people, you will have your own preferences and habits. The way you manage depends on the context, the type of work you supervise, and the individual employees themselves. You will achieve your best results as a manager when your preferred management style matches your context. Some situations call for a more top-down management approach, for example:

·         The work is prescribed, compliance-based, or related to safety procedures.

·         The employee is new to the agency and needs this approach to get started.

·         The employee prefers and works best with this approach.

·         During an emergency situation where timelines and coordination of tasks are critical.

Top-down management styles, however, create and sustain a more dependent supervisor-employee relationship, which then adds to the burden held by the manager. So if we assume that you have hired the right person for the job, then:

·         If you tell your good employee what to do, they will go out and do it. Then they’ll come back for more instruction.

·         Alternatively, if you ask your good employee what they are going to do, they will begin a process to discover it for themselves. If you continue to resist telling them what and how to do things, they will take increasing responsibility and ownership for the work.

“Great managers define outcomes, not steps”

This phrase is from First, Break All the Rules, by M. Buckingham and C. Coffman, 1999.

In order to deal with the potential burden of people management on a daily basis, great managers will spend the time to clearly define, negotiate, and communicate the desired outcomes to their employees. The focus needs to be on the ‘pivotal’ responsibilities and outcomes that are essential to the job purpose, not on all the possible activities the jobholder may do.


This is the end result to be achieved as a result of the employee’s efforts. It is what you will be seeing, hearing, feeling and saying to yourself once it is achieved. It can be written as a noun (as verbs usually describe the activities that lead to an outcome). The desired outcome should be within the employee’s circle of influence – in other words, it should be actionable by the employee. If you are writing them down, you can use the familiar SMART formula for writing outcome statements, as long as you focus on end results and not on activities.

Example: A pivotal responsibility of your field director is to report on program activities, expenditures, etc. The activity is “reporting” (a verb). An outcome statement to set and clarify expectations may be: “Monthly program status reports are completed according to the approved format by the 5th of each month.”

Example: A pivotal responsibility of your admin assistant is to maintain the files in good order. The activity is “maintaining files” (a verb). An outcome statement used for setting clear expectations might be: “Files are kept accurately and up-to-date, such that they may be audited at any time.”

Example: A pivotal responsibility of your Program Coordinator is to raise awareness of important issues in the field. “Raising awareness” (a verb again) is a difficult activity to assign to a clearly defined outcome. The manager and the program coordinator may work together to identify a specific project, which would lead to raising awareness. For example: “On 30 November, 20xx, a detailed research report will be presented to internal and external stakeholders at the regional planning meeting.” (This outcome statement requires the program coordinator to undertake research, write it up, and plan a presentation.)

In addition to stating the end result expected, it is useful to also specify standards for how it should be done.


Standards are statements of quality or quantity. The language of standards helps you to clarify what is important to you about how the work is done (inputs) and the quality of the outputs. You will use more specific standards when the work is compliance-based, or when the employee doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to know about best practice.

Example: If the outcome is: “On 30 November, 20xx, a detailed research report will be presented to internal and external stakeholders at the regional planning meeting”, then standards may be:

·         A 10-12 page report covering background, current issues and resources, ways forward.

·         Research incorporates a participatory process including all stakeholders

·         Stories are documented using audio and video formats

·         A multi-media presentation of 15 minutes to share the findings

Note the difference between this approach and the top-down approach of outlining steps. Imagine using steps instead, for example ‘first, schedule a trip to the field; second, draw up an interview questionnaire;…’. How time consuming could that be? How de-motivating for the staff member involved?

Steps for agreeing outcomes with an employee:

1. Identify internal and external stakeholders for the employee’s work.

2. Identify stakeholders’ expectations.

3. Identify the employee’s pivotal responsibilities in relation to those expectations.

4. Select 4-5 desired outcomes (nouns)

5. Clarify expectations using the language of standards.

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