Several recent blogs by marketing guru Seth Godin got me thinking about setting expectations. As we know, an expectation is something that we believe will happen. I have often found, however, when working with clients who are asked about an upcoming meeting or event, “What do you want to have happen?” they often answer, “I don’t know.”

Folks frequently say they have no expectations about going somewhere, meeting someone or how things will turn out. I suspect that’s not really the case. Perhaps they don’t take the time to think things through. It’s also likely they don’t want to think about it, especially if there is some suspicion of a negative outcome, in which case the experience may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Setting expectations in business is essential for success. If you can imagine what result you desire, you can work to create it. I do not suggest that we can, or should, control people or outcomes. However, success is not an accident. Good outcomes result from intentional actions and planning; being on a path and moving purposefully in a chosen direction. Otherwise, one goes through life as a tumbleweed, subject to the whims of the wind, hoping to end up somewhere good.

It is important for each person to clarify and communicate their own expectations about a situation or a project as well as to understand accurately what others desire. By communicating openly, expectations can be negotiated and parties can collaborate on areas of agreement and results in order to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

Setting expectations requires you to decide the end you want and to decide what you are willing and able to do to create a desired result. This may be an individual expectation such as personal sales, productivity or a communication goal. Or, your expectation may involve others and be something specific such as a team, department or company goal or customer agreement. Regardless of how nebulous or complex the situation, you can still decide how to comport yourself; competently, professionally, fairly and positively.

That being said, professional expectations usually involve others. Therefore, it is critical to understand their expectations. When we assume that things are obvious, we risk misunderstandings, minor or major. Such misinterpretations are the seeds of conflict that can be easily avoided. Needless to say, it is preferable to avoid a problem rather than have to clean things up in order to get back on task.

A business with good products and services will ultimately not succeed if they fail to deliver on their customers’ expectations. Many companies conduct customer surveys to collect information on how they are doing, then fail to act on the information. And, too often companies neglect the importance of understanding employee expectations and motivations. Companies also need to be mindful of generational differences* within the workplace as well as in the marketplace. It is folly to assume that anything will work for everyone. Credibility is compromised by companies and individuals when their promises are unfulfilled. They also risk losing their most important asset — trust, which is the basis for loyalty needed to delight customers and sustain business relationships.

Now, a few tips to assist you in setting the stage for a successful outcome.

• Clarify all expectations — yours and others
• Set appropriate goals
• Make promises sparingly
• Keep promises faithfully, no matter the cost
• Words and actions must match

* See previous series of blogs, “Overcoming the Generational Divide” by Chuck Underwood about generational issues in the workplace.