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Who should set work expectations / goals? Employee or Manager?

Hoping some managers out there can weigh in.

I recently had a performance review that was lacking in some categories and was surprised as I had a good mid-year check-in and had not received any negative feedback. After speaking with me manager, I discovered there were goals they had that I was not aware of.

  1. They feel my work is not always related to the team's priorities. We have weekly team meetings so I should be able to derive the team's priorities from the discussions and make sure what I work on is related that priority.
  2. I should take on more tasks from the shared team email.
  3. If unsure about points 1 and 2, I should ask questions or walk over to the manager's office during our in-office days to check-in (1:1 meeting).

I feel like point 1 doesn't make a lot of sense. A lot of times team meetings are about what others are working on so it doesn't really pertain to my tasks. Therefore there really isn't anything for me to "prioritize". My manager also used the words "read between the lines" when talking about the team meeting discussions, which I think is silly; if the manager wants something, I think they should just tell me.

For points 2 and 3, I think that gets to the heart of my question about work expectations. It sounds like my manger wants me to the be the one seeking out what I need to do / what work goals I should have. E.g., for the shared inbox, if something comes in I'll see it and then wait for my manager to assign the task to one of the team members. But it sounds like they would prefer I jump on it first and then ask them if I can take on that new request.

Overall, I can't really see any good arguments for point 1 since that requires making assumptions about what people are thinking, but I'm second guessing myself for points 2 and 3. We haven't had any 1:1 meeting. I just figured since my manager didn't schedule any, it was not interested and was satisfied with my work. But sounds like they wanted me to schedule them / start them impromptu?

Should I be the one constantly going out and asking "Hey what do you need this week? Are their new priorities today from higher-ups? Should I work on that request that came in today?"

I was originally thinking no, but then I thought about how for other things in life if I need something I have to seek it out. e.g. if I want to file taxes, I need to look up what to do; the burden is on me since I face consequences for not doing it. Similarly, maybe since I want to keep my job, the burden is on me to make sure I'm doing it correctly and meeting all expectations, and therefore I should be the one figuring out what those expectations are so I don't face the consequence of a poor review / being fired.

Thoughts? Thanks!

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    "goals they had that I was not aware of." This is a HUGE RED FLAG for me. Holding people accountable for unstated goals is completely improper. Start by getting your CV in order because you likely don't want to work here long-term.
    – jwh20
    Mar 31, 2023 at 18:52
  • Could you provide some more details on structure/responsibilities of the team - how large is the team?, are there Team or Project Leads that report to the Manager?, what type of work does the team do?, do all members of the team have the same skillset? ... It's hard to provide advice without knowing, at least in a general sense, what the team is expected to 'produce' - if you're software developers, you're going to have different basic functions/expectations than if you're a team providing direct support for customers ... Mar 31, 2023 at 19:14
  • It sounds like your department badly needs a task management system, so needed work is listed in a single place, prioritized, easy to find (rather than buried in E-mail), and tracked (so you don't duplicate effort and can see who's working on what). There are many if there; Ill mention Jira just as a commonly-used example if it's type.You might want to propose this to management, and possibly win a point or two for proactive leadership....
    – keshlam
    Apr 5, 2023 at 13:36
  • How long have you been in this position? Was your mid-year review a performance review or a more general 1:1 meeting? Was this performance review part of your 1-year review, corporate annual review, or separate from those? This may help shape answers as it can indicate a performance problem, reprioritization, or other things.
    – David S
    Apr 14, 2023 at 21:53

3 Answers 3

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I think your questions are good ones, but they are not being directed to the right place. Go ask your manager exactly these questions. You described some ambiguous feedback from your manger, and are now asking us to tell you what we think they meant and how we think you should change your behavior going forward. But really, you need to get that from your manager.

The best way to meet expectations is to get a concrete, unambiguous definition of what those expectations are, and you can only get that from the person who has those expectations. But it sounds like they would prefer I jump on it first and then ask them if I can take on that new request. Go ask if they would in fact prefer that. But sounds like they wanted me to schedule them / start them impromptu? Go ask if they want you to do that. If they refuse to give you straight-forward answers to these specific questions, or if you think the answers you get are unreasonable, thats when you should come get help here.

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    Thanks for your input! I've talked to my manager about my concerns. I'll set the 1:1 meetings and they'll be more direct in expectations. I guess my question is mostly philosophical about which party should be explaining expectations / pursuing the understanding, i.e. should the manager explain them unprompted or should the employee be the one actively questioning for understanding.
    – sushi
    Mar 31, 2023 at 21:24
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    @sushi well in an ideal world the manager is perfectly clear about every expectation, the employee understands it and thats that. However that rarely happens, even with good managers. To answer your question directly, the manager should explain expectations in a way that is very clear to the employee, and the employee should ask clarifying questions and follow ups until both sides are confident that all expectations are understood. IMO, both sides should also follow up at least quarterly and discuss these expectations and if employee performance meets them, but thats more up to each situation.
    – InBedded16
    Mar 31, 2023 at 21:30
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Not every business can formalise expectations fully as roles and resources change frequently in most businesses. It's rare that you'll get a performance review where you won't get any feedback. It doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a bad job!

It sounds like your managers feedback is that he wants you to take more initiative. From a manager's point of view it can be frustrating when an employee expects their manager to keep them busy with tasks. Are you doing what you're told and nothing more? Or do you look for opportunities to get involved? I think this is what your manager means by reading between the lines in the team meetings.

With regards to their other point: relevance, priorities. It sounds like your manager wants you to collaborate more with your team. Communication will be key to this, and not every conversation needs to be mediated by your managers approval. It's good not to make assumptions, so test your assumptions with questions to your team.

These two points are common feedback for employees who are used to a chain of command style of management, which is becoming outdated actually. Managers want an employee who can manage themselves to a degree. This is necessary to prevent employees becoming too dependent on their manager for help so that they can complete their own tasks.

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The answer to your question is both you and your manager should work together to set expectations based on your job description and company priorities, but you should take the initiative and that will spur him/her on to agree or correct them.

Advice summary When a manager makes vague, generalized statements without tangible examples it can be frustrating. My advice is to take these generalities and try to make them specific with tangible categories that include measurable tasks/dates you can achieve with hard work, then meet with your manager to agree to them. If they agree, all you have to do is meet those goals (although I'd also suggest meeting with team members 1:1 to align with their goals before group meetings, because they probably provided the negative feedback to your boss). If they don't agree and press for things you can't do or continue to be vague, you can raise the issue with his/her boss, but also start looking for another job as a back up.

Discussion Your idea to proactively ask for feedback and check to see if you're aligned with your manager on a weekly basis is good, but typically you should formally agree with your manager to objectives for different projects that are measurable and match up with team priorities in the beginning of the yearly review cycle (in your case, at least in the section pertaining to projects vs. improving image of your department as a goal). That way you don't have to guess at alignment and if the team changes course after setting objectives, you have a good argument for changing course in your work (provided you share this with your boss at your update meetings and they agree to it). As an aside, it would not hurt to give your boss a written update every week as support. You could even have a section called "reading between the lines" or anticipating activities that were not explicitly spoken. That way you address that concern as well. Each of the objectives should have tangible tasks/accomplishments with dates so you can defend that you've met your objectives. In the "image" case I mentioned before, something like, doing a presentation for senior management and/or other functions in the company that showcase your team's work by 3rd Quarter 2023. Also meet with your team and other members to improve relationships and "pre-align" 1:1 with each one beforehand to make sure the group meetings go well. Ask them what you can do for them to help them do their jobs better. If you feel confident, you could invite your boss to see improvement. Good luck!

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    A lot of this answer is good but I don't think it is reasonable to assume that team members have provided negative feedback - it is very possible that the manager is the one who does not think sushi's work is aligned with team directives. I also don't think setting a 1:1 meeting with teammates before every group meeting to align is feasible (what if its a team of 30?) or necessary. One of the points of group meetings is to align on goals. Weekly written updates is a good idea but the exact implementation of that idea should be agreed upon beforehand with the manager.
    – InBedded16
    Mar 31, 2023 at 18:40
  • @InBedded16 thanks for your feedback (and nice collection of Critic badges)! I said they probably provided the feedback because this has been my observation as a long time manager - so I'll politely push back that it is reasonable, while agreeing it is possible the manager has that opinion. I did not state to align before every group meeting, but a 1:1 baseline and on an "as needed" basis will help sushi understand in order to solve or isolate the problem. To digress, IMHO a team of 30 should be smaller with appointees per function to help improve accountability and performance. TGIF!
    – ScrappyDoo
    Mar 31, 2023 at 20:21

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