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Catherine Joyce

BlueQuay Limited

Managing Director

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Build trust by understanding the rules of engagement


Managing expectations successfully is a skill that can usefully be applied in virtually all elements of life, from work, to social to home relationships. At its very essence are two elements: clarity and trust. In this article we’ll explore both what makes it easy and what to avoid if you want to manage expectations successfully.  

Strangely, the need to ‘manage expectations’ often becomes blindingly obvious only after a gap has come to light. It’s often not valued beforehand.

When the ‘psychological contract’ – or 'Rules of Engagement' (RoE) as some refer to it -becomes strained, it shows in the interactions and conversations, which may shift from being friendly and cooperative, to abrupt and defensive. 

This gap can arise because assumptions are made ‘that we’re on the same page' when we’re not’; that ‘someone has briefed me' when they haven’t’ or when someone thinks ‘it’s obvious’ and it isn’t.

The gap can also be heralded by a sense that you don’t quite trust the person as much as you used to. 

Here’s an example.

  • Steve and Andy worked together well for two years as peers
  • Soon after Steve was promoted to line manager over his peers, the relationships dynamic between the team, and in particular Andy, shifted
  • Steve exerted more authority, and began having trouble relating to some of the team. He was disappointed in their performance; he expected more from them.
  • Affected by tension among the team, Andy’s performance at work fell off noticeably.
  • From Andy’s perspective, Steve moved from being a co-operative peer taking a we-centred approach to being directive and I-centred. 
  • Each thought the issue lay with the other person.
  • Trust between them became strained and defensiveness now represented their interactions.

Conflict like this arises between individuals who have differing expectations for each other and this can happen whether or not a shift in role is experienced.

If ‘clarity’ is not achieved, relationships and performance can be affected long term unless something stops the rot.

It’s not about ‘appeasement’ – negotiation and assertion are also part of the dialogue.

Rules of engagement help clarify two-way expectations & develop trust

What are Rules of Engagement (RofE)?

They are a vocalised version of a concept that gained currency in the 1990s called the ‘psychological contract.'

This is defined as the perceptions of the two parties, employee and employer, of what their mutual obligations are towards each other'.  RofE come about via a series of open and honest managing expectations conversations that result in a clear set of agreements.   

Until expectations are put on the table, both parties hold their own ideas of what they need and expect; often they are quite different to the other person’s. 

This gap can become a chasm if not bridged and can lead to a break down in trust. Before you know it, everyone in the team can sense the tension.

Unspoken assumptions and changing expectations become ‘reality gaps’ that cause friction, stress and dysfunction in relationships.

“Conversations are the way we connect, engage, navigate and transform the world with others” –Judith E Glaser

One of the many benefits of having agreed Rules of Engagement is that they are often more influential than the formal contract in affecting how employers and employees behave from day to day.

The process of developing them requires both parties sit down to discuss expectations and needs. Part of the openness means letting people know what won’t work, isn’t ok or needs to be different.

It’s not about ‘appeasement’ – negotiation and assertion are also part of the dialogue.

The outputs will record specifics of what employer and employees are required to do in order to meet their side of the bargain and what they can expect from their job.

While it is not strictly enforceable it is in effect a reflection of the quality of the underlying relationship, confidence and trust that exists or not, between employer and employee. 

The quality of the two-way interaction we generate creates an impact on the other person. If the impact ‘feels good’ we will open up, engage and begin to trust them. This leads to a productive, cooperative working relationship.

“Never trust your tongue when your heart is bitter” -Irish saying

If the impact ‘feels bad’ we will withdraw and act to protect.

Thus, when trust is strained, we approach conversations, communications, decisions with suspicion; we see reality with threatened eyes.

This causes changes in behaviour, such as we expect more than is possible, or we’re more sensitive to feeling wrong. We guard information when we should share it. We interpret other’s actions with scepticism or cynicism and we retreat in order to protect ourselves.

The challenge we face in these conversations is to avoid triggering this defensiveness and fear and instead to generate healthy discussion and debate, that build trusting ‘feel good’ working relationships.

If you wish to manage employee, client, employer, supplier you need to make things explicit and conduct open conversations.

Here are some ideas about how.

7 tips on how to set up a healthy 'Rules of Engagement' agreement

These are a few ideas you can take in order to set up and hold an intelligent conversation that yields greater clarity and agreement going forward.

1. Stop being addicted to being right because it closes down contributions from others; it causes conflict within teams and makes you look like you’re ‘grandstanding’. Alternatively, lean in and assert the valuable opportunity this conversation offers.

2. Listen to connect, rather than to push your views onto others. Connecting enables you to find out new information and gain new insights while you share and explore together

3. Take a clean sheet of paper and divide down middle into two columns. Head one column ‘What I need & expect from you’ and the other  ‘What you can expect from me’

Twenty minutes spent getting clear will be time well spent. It will enable you to have a conversation for clarity that sets the working relationship up for success. 
4. Reach out to the other person you wish to ‘manage expectations’ with. Let them know you want to explore and cooperate on developing a set of shared Rules of Engagement

5. Ask them to prepare, for example by taking action on point three above, and let them know you’ll both share findings. 

Yes, I know, this may put you, them or both out of your comfort zones; better that that continued distrust, dysfunction and poor performance.

6. Through two-way dialogue, listening, understanding, come up with a set of shared ‘rules of engagement’ that you will both work to. This will be your touchstone when things change and it can be renewed at any time. Expect that expectations need tweaking over time – and that’s a good thing. It means that lines of communication remain open and that trust stays in place.

7. Building trust and clarity at the start of a relationship, project or process forms a great foundation to the working relationship.  It means that when things get tough, that solid foundation will pay dividends. 

Rebuilding trust and clarity takes effort and time and may well be the difference between retaining or losing the person. 

What to avoid every time when managing expectations 

  1. Assuming “everyone thinks like me” because they don't.  In fact, research shows that when we are so attached to our point of view, we are unable to connect with others’ perspectives
  2. The temptation to win the point at all costs.  Sure, winning a point makes us feel good, but it makes others feel bad, and we often don’t realize that.
  3. The assumption that we remember what others say, when we actually remember what we think about what others say.
  4. Using negative emotive or judgmental words
  5. Tell, sell, yell syndrome when people differ in opinion to you. Listen to connect instead
  6. Thinking the other person knows what you mean, until you’ve checked you both have the same picture. Until you do this, meaning resides in the listener, not in the speaker.

Mind your language and and avoid:

  • assuming that ‘it’s obvious, isn’t it?' or 'I shouldn’t have to spell it out’ (it isn’t and you do)
  • thinking that because you said it,  they heard it, they get it, they agree
  • assuming because you said it once, they’ll remember it (ref: the forgetting curve)
  • thinking that because you know them you don’t need to be explicit about it (you do)
  • waiting and saying ‘I’ll do it when we do the annual review’.  Do it now, review it then
  • thinking they can pick it up from their colleagues – it’s too big a risk
  • believing that it’s not much different to 'how we worked on the last project/last year'
  • believing that because they know us, they don’t need to be explicit
  • thinking that others will know intuitively and accurately what you need and expect of them

So in conclusion, find the confidence, find the time, find the commitment to discuss ‘Rules of Engagement’ because it will help you both manage expectations.

It engenders trust.

It enables misunderstandings, assumptions, expectations and aspirations to be clarified and negotiated, and most importantly of all, it sets the working relationship up for success.

One Response

  1. Great article Catherine, love
    Great article Catherine, love the bullet points at the end. You highlight the downside of “assuming” which is the evil of all conclusions. I define assumption as the lowest form of knowledge. So when we form an opinion, draw a conclusion, make a decision or develop a perspective based on assumption we have used our lowest form of knowledge to reach that end. The fact is we don’t know. So when faced with assumption give people the benefit of the doubt and choose to believe the best until you have good reason to believe otherwise. Love the article.

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Catherine Joyce

Managing Director

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