I have a friend whose mantra is “managing expectations.” His point is that just about every disagreement can come back to the fact that the opposing parties had a different expectation when they went in. 

Let’s translate that to our team. When there are differing expectations on the team, problems are inevitable. It will manifest itself as inefficiency and frustration, followed by the performance below the acceptable standard.  

I saw this firsthand during a recent conversation. The term accountability came up. “I want my team members to be accountable.”

My first question that followed was, “What are some things that makeup accountability? Let’s write them on the whiteboard.” Ownership, communication, and results were immediately mentioned.  

That’s an impressive list, but what do those terms really mean? We then briefly discussed some details under each of those overarching, nebulous concepts.  

Then comes the tough question: As a leader, what certainty do you have that your idea of accountability matches your team’s idea? That was followed by a bit of silence and thoughtfulness. There lies the challenge.  

As employees and leaders, we all have expectations. We have ideas that a particular thing or concept should play out a certain way.  

It is nearly guaranteed that our idea—our expectation—will not perfectly match the expectation of our boss or teammates. Sometimes they don’t even come close! 

Alignment is an elusive goal without aggressive communication. We must define and operationalize our expectations, then communicate them—and both steps are essential. 

How do we gain alignment among the team? Start with an open discussion, either team-based or one-on-one, as appropriate. Exchange the word “accountability” with any other word where you need alignment and clarity. 

  1. What do you think when you hear the term “accountability?”  
  2. What does “accountability” really mean?  
  3. What does this look like at different levels in our organization?  
  4. What does accountability look like to you in your role?  

Our expectations must be clear and commonly understood across the team. If someone throws out a large, nebulous term, follow it up with a few of these questions. This is especially important when it’s your boss because their idea of what it looks like had better be your idea as well.

Once the expectations are clearly and commonly understood, the leader must incorporate them into the rhythm of daily operations, like a drumbeat for a marching band. Team members must talk about them when the leader isn’t around. 

We must be aggressive about hearing and completely understanding when communication happens. As Peter Drucker famously said, “The only things natural to an organization are friction, confusion, and mal-performance. Everything else is a result of leadership.” Don’t let your assumptions—or those of your team—undermine team performance.