A simple yet powerful phrase

The simplest phrases are often the most powerful. I was thinking about this as I attended a chemical dependency seminar for parents at my children’s high school. The speakers shared statistics about teenage drug & alcohol use and told us about their first-hand experiences with addiction. They also recommended that we tell our kids, “My expectations are that you won’t do illegal drugs and that you won’t drink until you are 21, and then that you will do so responsibly.”

I felt like hitting myself on the side of the head. While I wanted my children to stay away from drugs and alcohol, I don’t think I had ever explicitly told them. At breakfast the next morning, I mentioned the seminar, and I replayed the exact phrase, “My expectations are…”

Will these words alone be enough to keep my kids from experimenting? Of course not. But, by saying them, I reinforced our family values in the context of drug use and underage drinking, and I felt I was doing so in a way that was respectful and demonstrated that I trusted them to make good choices.

It got me thinking about the equivalent in leadership, and how I could make use of the phrase, “My expectations are…” when I delegate projects, write performance reviews, and speak at employee meetings. Using these words, I could describe things in a way that would show my trust, motivate them, and perhaps even inspire them to achieve more than they thought they could. E.g., “My expectations for the budget proposal are that you will deliver an executive summary with a detailed spreadsheet, by the deadline, and that you will identify the right people to work with so that the proposal is accepted quickly.”

In thinking about how to use the phrase “My expectations are…” in a written performance evaluation, I decided to dust off some reviews I received in the past. In one, a manager gave me somewhat vague direction of what I should do to develop my career:

  • “Over the coming year it will be very helpful for you to continue your advocacy for your group and the collaboration with the business units…”
  • “I encourage you to focus more time on a longer term roadmap for your group…”
  • “I also encourage you to continue building out your thoughts on areas for you to have greater impact than you even do now at the company and where that may lead to developing skills further…”

Imagine how much more effective his guidance would have had if he had used the “My expectations are” phrase:

  • “Over the coming year, my expectations are that you will meet with all the key players in the business units, ensuring that there is excellent collaboration…”
  • “My expectations are that you will deliver a 3-year roadmap for your group…”
  • “My expectations are that you will identify two new service offerings, along with a plan for developing and rolling them out to the company.

If he had written them this way, I know I would have had more clarity about his expectations and would have felt empowered and motivated to deliver on them. However, as they were, I didn’t really understand what he was expecting.

We all know that kids and employees can’t read our minds. Do you have a favorite simple yet powerful phrase to convey values, rules, directives, or goals? I’d like to hear from you!


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “A simple yet powerful phrase

  1. My favorite, most clear and most successful consulting project involved something like this. I was sort of mid-level in the team hierarchy and joined the project about 3 months in. The day I joined, we had a team meeting where the partner on the project (senior guy on our team) shared that he just entered into an agreement with the client, and if these specific 5 measures were achieved, we got a bonus.
    I LOVED that. It made it crystal-clear that, if what I was doing on any given day did NOT impact and improve those five measures, I’d better have a really good reason for doing it.
    My priorities were clear, as were the priorities of the team. In the end, we hit or exceeded all the targets and got our bonus.
    Love the idea of using this in parenting as well.

  2. Mom – your words and expectations are plenty to prevent me from experimenting from drugs, so don’t talk yourself down too much! 😉

  3. I used “My expectation of you…” with my son two days ago and his response was, “oh good, I like meeting expectations!” Not what I expected as a reply but VERY happy to hear it. It only lasted a day but I figure I can just repeat it once a day and that should work until it’s a “habit,” right?! Thank so much, Karen!!!

  4. I know that, from personal experience, specificity in providing instruction (to employees or my children) is a key issue. When, in particular (and as you point out in your blog posting) you are providing formal performance feedback, detailing the behaviors you specifically want to see is critical. You know that they’ve heard you when they complain about that instruction or reject it – not that inflicting that conflict is your goal, of course, but it indicates that they received and internalized your message. Equally effective, though far less common, is the response where the recipient gives you examples of how they could/would implement your specific instruction.

    I love couching the instruction in the context of “my expectations are”. Strong performers generally want to please their superiors (for a variety of reasons) – with children, even more so. As one strong performer to another, its a re-enforcement to your employee that you are the gatekeeper of their rewards,determine the factors for their success and this is how you’ll judge their performance. And you’ve given them clear instructions they can follow and by which you can judge their (and your!) performance So, you’ve certainly captured a way to guide those in your charge who look at performance management as a key attribute toward success.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Tom. I completely agree with you, and I love how you describe strong performers (and children) who want to please their superiors. Right on!

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