Thursday was Valentine’s Day. For some, it’s the most romantic day of the year. For others, it’s a huge let down. There’s so much we can learn about healthy teams from Valentine’s Day. That’s because we do the same thing with our colleagues as we do with our partners—we hold grand expectations of what we want but fail to communicate them. Essentially, we just wait for people to disappoint us. Argh.

That was certainly true of the executive team that was waiting for their new CEO to arrive. We were discussing their hopes and fears about what the new guy would be like when one of the leaders, Ken, said, “I sure hope he recognizes how my business is different from the others.” I asked if he planned to share this hope with the new CEO. He said, “No,” with a noticeable “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” tone. Ken said that it would be presumptive to tell his new boss what to do. I clarified, “I don’t think you should tell him what to do.  I think you should tell him what you’d like.  There’s a big difference.” It was clear that Ken’s relationship with his new boss hinged on whether or not he recognized the differences in Ken’s business. Ken had set the test he just wasn’t letting this boss in on his answer key. By holding this hope without communicating it, Ken was setting up his boss to disappoint him.

Learn from Valentine’s Day

When I saw this sort of thing happening frequently, I decided to give it a name. No other name conjured the right feelings better than the, “Valentine’s Day effect” because this is exactly what so many of us do on Valentine’s Day: we hold grand expectations of what would make us feel loved and appreciated, but we don’t share these expectations with our partners; instead, we wait for them to spontaneously deliver exactly what we were hoping for. Based on my informal polling, I’ve confirmed that this is an ineffective strategy for receiving the Valentine’s Day of one’s dreams.

Sadly, we do exactly the same thing at work: we have a clear picture of what we want, and we wait for the other person to figure it out or, more often, to disappoint us. You want a colleague to offer to stay until the work is finished and when he leaves at the normal time, you feel abandoned. You expect a direct report to include something in a report that she’s never included before and when she doesn’t, you change your perceptions of her potential.  You wish for the people on the other team to give you a heads up before sending work your way and when yet another project arrives out of the blue, you get exasperated.

Holding expectations that you fail to communicate is a sure-fire way to create a conflict with your unsuspecting colleagues. If you want to avoid unnecessary conflict, make it a habit to communicate your expectations and solicit the expectations others have of you.

From now on, start any new assignment (e.g., new job, new project, new task) with a conversation about what success looks like for everyone involved. If you want to earn a few relationship brownie points, remember to ask about the other person’s expectations before sharing your own. Start by asking broad questions to leave lots of room for the answer to go in a different direction than you initially thought.

Here are some great questions for finding out what others expect of you:

  1. “What would be a win for you?”
  2. “What does success look like for you?”
  3. “What needs to be included in the solution/draft/presentation/prototype?”
  4. “How are you being measured?”
  5. “What’s the most important thing for me to include?”
  6. “What would you like me to do differently than last time?”
  7. “How are you imagining this?”
  8. “What would cause problems?”
  9. “Who needs to be consulted as a build this?”
  10. “Where do you want me to focus?”

If you do this each and every time, you’ll create a healthy new habit of clarifying expectations. That will ensure your next few projects go more smoothly. With a few tweaks, these questions could also set you up for a much happier Valentine’s Day next year!

Further Reading

How to Get People To Live Up to Your Expectations

Video: How not to disappoint a teammate

10 Tips to Prevent Misalignment from Destroying Trust