Build trust by setting expectations

imo-blogIf you’re normal, the biggest opportunity your team faces is trusting each other even more. Until they can say anything to each other, and everybody can listen open-mindedly and never ever take offense – until you build your team up to that level, they will perform below their potential.

Share this article!


If you’re normal, the biggest opportunity your team faces is trusting each other even more.

Until they can say anything to each other, and everybody can listen open-mindedly and never ever take offense – until you build your team up to that level, they will perform below their potential.

The most common obstacle is that the trust-building cycle of setting an expectation, and then meeting it, gets broken at the beginning because they never communicate clearly enough to set truly clear expectations. Worse, most people see the pattern and misidentify it as being a performance problem. It’s not.

The Unreliable Co-Worker

Consider the experience of Pat the Performer, and her co-worker Late Nate.

Pat complained that Nate always arrived to work, well, late. Every single day. Nate also got back from lunch late, every day. Some days it was 5 minutes. Some days it was 15 minutes.

Pat brought this up at a training I was leading (Nate wasn’t there), on how to build more trust on teams. Participants were asked: “think of someone you wish you trusted more than you currently do, and rate them — where ’1′ is low and ’5′ is high — on the Four Elements of Trust:


Performer Pat rated Late Nate as “1, 2, 1, 1.” Almost the worst scores you can give. Ouch.

We started with the first one — which is where most trust starts to form or fail — Reliability. “What would you like Nate to do differently, so you would have a better experience of him and his reliability?”

Pat’s answer was instant: “I want him to be on time.”

The Performance Trap – No Shared Definition

But what exactly does “on time” mean? Some people think it means, at 8 a.m. you are at your desk, coat hung up, computer on, coffee poured, starting work. Other people think it means you’re tagging the door with your electronic key at 7:59:59.

Those two definitions are mutually incompatible. And they are both true. Without more information, we cannot say which is the ‘correct’ definition for this team.

Even worse, as long as two people on a team have two definitions of “late” and “on time” in their heads, they can never learn to trust each other. Never.

Trust starts with Reliability

Reliability is experienced when an Expectation is Set and Met.

You can never meet an expectation that is vague, ambiguous, or unclear. When the expectation is not clearly set, then no performance will ever be “right” for both parties.

What Pat and Nate were experiencing was not a performance problem. It was a communications problem.

Weed Control

I had the same problem with my landlord. She asked if I would do some yard work. I hate yard work, and I hate saying “no” to my landlord. So I said “yes.” To be clear, I both hate yard work and know nothing about it — nor do I want to.

She wanted weeds controlled alongside the building — she wanted cardboard laid over the entire area, with straw and eventually mulch over it. The biodegradable cardboard would smother the existing weeds (and their roots and seeds) and turn them into mulch, before disintegrating in a few weeks and becoming more mulch.

So I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I laid the cardboard over the top of the weeds, distributed the straw over the top, and proudly showed her my result.

She was appalled.

Turns out, she expected me to pull up most of the weeds first, and she expected the cardboard to by lying flat, not in lumps over the intact weeds. (You gardeners are all equally appalled with my performance, no doubt.)

What was I expecting? I was expecting to get credit for my effort. (That was foolish of me — only children or students should get credit for effort.)

What was she expecting? Adequate results.

Who failed to clearly set expectations? Both of us — mostly me. Because I’m the service provider, the burden is on me to set the expectation of what I would deliver, or ask for enough detail to know what the client expected. And because I’m the one trained in this type of communication, I was the one who knew better.

Saying “Yes” Too Quickly

Afterward, I realized I had attempted to purchase goodwill by saying “yes” to an unclear request. It’s fine to say “yes” early — you just have to follow up with clarifications until you both know exactly what’s going to happen.

When we say “yes” too quickly, we can be setting ourselves up for failure.

Had I clarified what my landlord expected, I would have said “no” — and her disappointment would have been far, far smaller, and I would not have damaged our relationship.

The “yes” said too quickly, without enough follow-up on the details and setting accurate expectations, is a recipe for disaster.

Pat and Nate

The story of Pat and Nate ends happily. Nate actually confronted Pat with: “Do you have a problem with me?” That surfaced the issue of what ‘late’ and ‘on time’ meant to each of them.

Once they realized they had different expectations of their performance, they started to build a shared expectation.

“Nate’s been on time every day this week,” Pat told me.

That’s a breakthrough for them as teammates. But it wasn’t really a breakthrough in performance — it was a breakthrough in setting clear, shared expectations.

How are your teammates leaving you feeling let down? Email comment to [email protected].

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.