Abdicating leadership responsibility sets employees up to fail

Apparently, it has fallen out of fashion to give employees expectations for performing a task and giving corrective feedback when they go off course. One of the most common ideas we hear from clients in our leadership foundations program is they should let employees get it wrong so they will learn how to do it right. I find this an odd notion because one of the greatest fears employees have is failing.

How did this way of thinking come about? For leaders who tend to interpret things in black and white, they likely heard that employees like to feel empowered to do their job and don’t want to be told what to do but took it out of context. Yes, they like to feel empowered, but first they need to hear what successful performance looks like, what is expected of them, and whether there is already a standard operating procedure to follow so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Many leaders who adopt a permissive style of leading do so because they have difficulty asserting their authority and telling employees what to do and how to do it. They assume employees know what to do and don’t feel like they should have to define expectations or redirect employees when they go off track. These leaders leave it to employees to figure it out for themselves, often leaving them anxious and confused about what is expected of them. Employees will work hard to do what they think is expected of them, but too often, with this type of leadership, employees waste time on initiatives that fail to meet the goals or underperform relative to unstated expectations.

With the absence of clearly defined expectations and corrective feedback, employees don’t trust their leader to be direct and honest with them, creating an environment of mistrust. At worst, employees take advantage of the lack of firm leadership and decide on their own what work they want to do and when. These behaviors lead to a lack of individual and collective responsibility for the team’s success, resulting in some degree of disorder, disobedience, and chaos as people “do their own thing.”

Leaders blame employees

Leaders and managers don’t often blame themselves when an employee fails, or even when they just perform poorly. Instead, they blame the employee, despite not having given them clear expectations. You will often hear them say, “I told them what I wanted. They should know how to do it without me having to teach them.” “They must not know or understand the work like they said they did.” “The employee just isn’t a go-getter.” Whatever the reason, they abdicate responsibility for contributing to the problem, blaming the employee instead.

Of course, sometimes it’s the employee, but we find that more often than not, it’s some abdication of responsibility for giving expectations, course correcting, or holding them accountable that is the source of the performance issue. When the manager or leader discovers underperformance, instead of correcting the employee or giving them feedback, they lower their expectations or decide it’s faster or easier to do it themselves. This in turn reinforces the poor performance. Leaders also find themselves complaining to others about the employee instead of helping them succeed.

The decline of performance

Once a manager lets performance issues persist without fully resolving them, they stop engaging the same way they had in the past with their employee. Instead, they lower their expectations and withdraw from further development of the relationship or from managing their performance. They don’t discuss performance improvement plans or continue coaching the employee because they either don’t have the skills needed to help their employees succeed, they believe the employee should do things the same way as other employees, or they get upset and withdraw. The underperforming employee sees how differently they are treated by their manager and their confidence starts eroding leading to a further decline in their performance.

This decline in performance has been supported by numerous studies that confirm people will perform up or down to the levels that their leaders expect from them or, to the levels they expect from themselves. In the absence of clear expectations, performance will depend on how high the expectations of the employee have of themselves. However, these expectations might not be aligned with the unclear or undefined expectations of their leader.

Employees aren’t stupid

Despite how they are feeling and the shift in their behavior, leaders tend to think that their behavior toward all of their direct reports is the same, even though employees who are underperforming know something is up. They feel it. But their boss won’t come clean even when asked by the employee about how they can improve their performance. Instead, they keep the underperforming employee making the same mistakes, missing deadlines, or not achieving their unspoken expectations. The employee knows full well that their boss treats them differently than others. They just don’t know why and what they can do about it.

The impact on employee performance when they perceive their manager disapproves of them is palpable. They stop trying, becoming demotivated and disengaged. Their productivity and quality of work is also negatively affected, and they no longer strive to contribute beyond the bare minimum. What’s the point? The manager has no idea they are having this impact on their employee because in their mind, they’re protecting them from finding out that they are underperforming.

The Cost of a Lack of Managing Performance to Expectations

A lack of expectations and abdication from managing and developing employee performance by permissive leaders has significant emotional and financial costs to people and the organization. First it has an emotional and reputational impact on both the employee and the leaders. A lack of honesty and authenticity about the performance issue causes stress for both parties. How both are perceived by peers and other leaders are indirect costs to the team, the boss’s reputation and how the employee is perceived because of the complaints from the manager. No one wins in this scenario.

It also takes its toll in terms of the leader or other team members having to compensate for substandard work taking them away from their own work. The company pays because the leader fails to get them most out of their employee. The team becomes dysfunctional because team members feel they must take sides, causing the team to split with one side protecting the employee and the other the boss. Everyone then experiences stress and is more likely to act out with their own underperformance, absenteeism or other passive ways of protesting the dysfunctional behavior of the leader.

Show them what success looks like

If you want to make sure an employee is successful at performing in their role, your first step as a leader is to be able to set and communicate expectations clearly. You have to know what you want from people and then set realistic, reasonable tasks and deadlines. Then you must be able to communicate and spell out, in detail, what you want and need, and make sure your employee agrees and can restate what it is you are asking them for. While what you are expecting of employees is important, so is how you communicate expectations to them.

Expectations, whether a task, project, or behavioral, should be created using the S.M.A.R.T. criterion. S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) is an acronym that is commonly used to make sure expectations, goals, and objectives help employees know precisely what they need to do when they need to do it, why they are doing it, and how it connects to the organization’s objectives. Not every expectation has to have a quantitative expectation assigned to it, but whenever possible leaders should include specific deadlines, time limitations, budget restrictions, or other expectations for quality, quantity, timeliness, or cost.

An absence of expectations, instructions, and direction leads to poor performance, turnover, conflict, and disengagement. Unclear or mismatched expectations, assumptions about employee competence, and beliefs about what they “should” need, get in the way of successful performance. For employees to be successful, you have to communicate expectations clearly and regularly. Even when things are going well, you have to keep reinforcing performance by communicating expectations consistently. Reinforcing ensures alignment to goals, keeps everyone on the same page, and prevents confusion and miscommunication.

Develop skills for setting expectations

We can’t overstate the importance of Setting Expectations in creating the platform for your employee’s success. Here are a few things you can do to improve your ability to set and communicate expectations:

  1. Take a course and then practice creating expectations using the SMART criterion.
  2. Practice identifying behavioral expectations for employees.
  3. Ask peers or other colleagues to review your expectations and practice communicating them.

Setting expectations for employees enhances your ability to lead and manage performance. It’s up to you to show employees what success looks like and if you aren’t clear, they won’t be either. Having an expectations template to fill out can be a great help when you are learning how to be clear in setting and establishing expectations using the SMART criterion.


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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