Once, I was headed to a meeting where my team was in charge of providing dessert. On the way, I passed a bakery with a large chocolate cake in the window that was on sale. When I arrived at the office, I asked one of my colleagues to go get a cake from this bakery and gave him the money he’d need to buy the discounted cake in the window. When he arrived back from the bakery, he set down the carrot cake he had bought and told me I owed him $10. I questioned him about the chocolate cake I had seen on sale in the window display. It was only then I realized that I hadn’t told him which specific cake I wanted, only that I wanted him to get a cake from this particular bakery.
I had assumed that he would see the amount I gave him and get the cake that was on sale, but I didn’t specify, so he got his favorite: carrot cake (though I personally don’t understand the idea of vegetables in dessert).
In cake purchases and in management, everyone benefits when there are clear expectations. It is your responsibility as a leader not only to define the expectations but to communicate them clearly and check for understanding regularly. This doesn’t mean that they are written in stone. Expectations can (and should) be updated and adapted over time. This requires a great deal of give and take, honest and clear communication, and mental and emotional energy and engagement by everyone on the team, but in the long-term makes for a healthier work environment and stronger organization.
It may sound simple, but for employees to know what is expected of them, you as the manager must take the time to consider what your expectations actually are. Define the function and tasks of each job you oversee in light of the whole team and the goals of the organization. It is also important to be clear not just about what responsibilities each person has, but when and in what manner you expect them to be carried out.