How many questions do you think you ask in a day?

Between my clients, my kids, and my husband, there’s no doubt that I ask hundreds. And sometimes, I believe we ask questions without really considering the possible responses.

Let me give you an example:

We’re having some work done to our house, and we’re renting a place to live in the meantime. We signed a six-month lease, which is now coming to an end. However, as anyone who’s been through renovations knows, construction is delayed and our house is nowhere near complete.

So, knowing our rental was available through the summer, I emailed the woman we’ve been renting from and asked her if we could extend our lease. An easy enough ask, right? A question with only one answer: “Christine, I would love you for you to stay. Yes!”

Except that’s not what she said. She said no. A big, fat, glaring no was staring back at me from my email inbox.

Of course, she had the right to say no. It’s her house. But it got me thinking about expectations versus agreements and how sometimes, we set ourselves up for disappointment, or even failure, by not anticipating or expecting all possible outcomes.

I see this a lot in the workplace and with my coaching clients. We ask questions of our teams, which are often more like demands.

“Can you please have this done by Friday?” often means “Have this done by Friday.”

“Can you please help _____ with this month’s forecast?” usually means “Help ____ with this month’s forecast.”

“Can you review this tomorrow and get back to me with your thoughts?” often means “Review this tomorrow and send to me your thoughts.”

These are all examples of setting expectations without agreements. And many of us do this without even thinking about it. We expect certain responses when we ask certain questions without any sort of agreement in place.

When you think back to the story I shared about my rental, I set an expectation that my landlord was going to say yes, even though she hadn’t agreed to my request.

In the workplace, we sometimes set expectations that our “questions” will be met with a resounding yes, without actually giving our team space to set an agreement or even to practice a third option: renegotiate.

This is often how we set ourselves (and our teams) up for disappointment and sometimes, failure.

Last time, I talked about the different dimensions of leadership, and somewhat coincidentally, these two ideas are quite closely linked.

In my experience, those who practice a three-dimensional style of leadership leave room for both agreements and renegotiation. They ask the questions, but they don’t set an expectation until there’s an agreement. And they always—always—leave room for renegotiation.

Let’s reconsider the first workplace example I shared:

“Can you please have this done by Friday?”

There are three possible responses to this question:

  1. “Yes, I can have this done by Friday.”(Whether or not this is true will only be determined on Friday.) 
  2. “No, I can’t do this by Friday.”
  3. “No, I can’t do this by Friday because I have X, Y and Z to do. Can we adjust deadlines on these other priorities so I can get this done? Or can we move this deadline to Tuesday?”

The second and third options only come out in workplaces where 3D leaders have introduced a culture of open communication and have empowered their teams to renegotiate. It then becomes common language. 

This allows the team to put an agreement in place so expectations can be set (and more often than not, met!). 

Here are a few other ways to foster an environment where team members feel comfortable saying no or renegotiating: 

• Talk about “expectations” and “agreements.” I’ve worked with leaders who have found it helpful to introduce this concept and to use this exact phrasing and language. This can help empower your team to say no or to renegotiate, so that your expectations are based on agreements that everyone feels comfortable with.

• Make it known that saying no in the moment is better than not delivering on your commitment. Many employees don’t want to be the naysayer and will say yes just to appease their manager, knowing very well that the expectation that’s being set is near impossible to deliver on. I’ve found it helpful to make it clear in the moment that you’d rather renegotiate now than be disappointed later.

• Reward renegotiating. Make sure your team knows that it’s OK to renegotiate. In fact, some leaders have found it helpful to reward it. You can publicly praise those who speak up and explain why it’s important to only make agreements that you can put your word on.

Have you used expectations and agreements in the workplace? Join me on LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation.

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