Managing Expectations for Success

“I thought you said you had this covered!” “I appreciate the effort, but that’s not what I had in mind.” “Let's go back to the drawing board.” No one likes to hear phrases like these cross the lips of the boss. These can be warnings that if you don’t do something quick, your performance review, bonus, raise, or promotion may be at risk. The good news is that you can prevent many of these conversations by managing expectations thoughtfully and actively.

There are four areas to be aware of in expectation management: Clarity, Communication, Confidence and Contingencies. By paying attention to these areas, you can manage your career more effectively, see faster advancement on your career ladder and enjoy greater opportunities. Follow this simple roadmap of questions to ask yourself and your manager to boost your success at work. 


The first rule of managing expectations is to make sure you understand exactly what is expected of you. You are probably familiar with the saying that “assumption is the mother of all… (let’s just say mistakes).” Many people make the mistake of assuming that they and the boss are on the same page. It is in your best interests to take responsibility for understanding in detail what the priorities are and what will be considered a success. while your manager has incentive to make sure you’re upholding your responsibilities, it is ultimately your performance review at stake.

  • What specific objectives are you expected to accomplish?
  • In what timeframe(s)?
  • Are they realistic (even if a bit of a stretch)?
  • On what will your performance be judged?
  • How will progress be measured?
  • Is the method of determining completion or success accurate?
  • What are the priorities?
  • What would “success” look like for each objective?
  • What would an outstanding, knock-it-out-of-the-park result look like?

When you have a team to supervise, make sure to share these expectations with them, and filter the actions downstream appropriately. Giving others a picture of what you think success looks like for the team and each individual will give them confidence to move forward.


Gaining clarity with your manager is just the beginning. To retain control of your performance throughout the project or the year, continual dialogue provides opportunities to gauge progress, assess risks, and adjust actions. When needed, additional resources or expertise may be marshaled to overcome obstacles. By keeping your boss in the loop, it also ensures that he or she is aware of your progress and successes along the way.

  • What method does your manager prefer for communications (meetings, phone, email, IM)?
  • Does he or she prefer to get the summarized version, or hear the supporting evidence in detail?
  • Does your manager reward people who solve problems autonomously or those who ask for advice and collaborate on a solution early on?
  • How often does it make sense to communicate with your manager?
  • What will you communicate on a regular basis?
  • How will you inform him or her of potential issues or barriers to achieving the objectives?
  • How will you highlight wins and successes?

If you are a manager yourself, help your staff by letting them know your communication preferences. Share with them how you expect them to handle and communicate potential issues so they can be handled in a timely manner and don’t become obstacles to your own success.


A crucial piece of managing expectations is being able to speak up when expectations are unrealistic or the situation changes such that a project is in jeopardy. Forging forward silently when there are significant risks to success will not end up reflecting well on you, or on your manager. While the initial discussion may feel uncomfortable, the outcome will be grounded in practicality and ultimately be more successful for everyone involved. Have confidence that an honest conversation early in the process benefits you.

  • Are there areas where the expectations set for you are unrealistic?
  • What concerns do you have about being able to achieve your goals?
  • Do you need to ask for adjustments in your annual objectives, or modify timeframes?
  • How and when will you bring up concerns to be addressed?

When managing others, make sure that you foster an environment where your team feels comfortable sharing concerns and raising issues. Work through challenging situations with them to build trust and candor.


Finally, plan for contingencies. When objectives are set at the beginning of the year, rarely is “what if” part of the conversation. Goals (when planned well) are usually based on identifying actions that support the team, department, and organizational goals. Some tasks will be easier than others and some are more dependent on external circumstances. The landscape can change quickly if a critical assumption does not end up to hold true. Assess the risks and identify potential options for addressing the most likely scenarios. That way you will be less likely to be caught by surprise.

  • What would put your key objectives at risk?
  • What is the likelihood of those occurring?
  • What can you do to minimize the risk?
  • What alternatives will you have or could you put in place?
  • What support or resources will you need?

Speak to your team (if you have one) about the risks they perceive and how you can help them mitigate risks to achieve their objectives. Consider a team brainstorming meeting so everyone can share ideas and be ready to react quickly to circumstances.

Managing expectations proactively will increase your chances of success, a great performance review, and the resulting ripple effects in your career progression. The key aspects are effective planning and communication. Don’t leave your performance and your future to chance or in the hands of others. Take charge and manage your career and advancement with intention.