I delivered a new program last week, one that helps leaders create role clarity for their employees. The team I was working with had already made great progress in defining what they need people to do and now they were looking for support on the how. (I’m grateful to work with clients who understand that achieving outcomes the wrong way can be just as much of a problem as not achieving them at all.)

The program included six hours of presentations, breakout exercises, worksheets, and discussion. And here’s what setting clear expectations really comes down to. I can give it to you in three words… STOP. USING. ADJECTIVES!

That’s pretty much it. Stop using adjectives.

Oh, I know…

Adjectives are delicious on a menu (sumptuous sauces, anyone?)

Adjectives are divine in poetry

Adjectives are dramatic, and deep, and dynamic in fiction.

I love a juicy adjective. (See what I did there?)

For fun, I re-watched this classic episode of Schoolhouse Rock (a key part of my 70’s-era tv education) that urges one to “unpack your adjectives.”

Watch, smile, enjoy. And after you watch…pack those adjectives back up and put them in a closet!

Adjectives are disastrous in management.

Adjectives and Expectations

When you’re trying to communicate clear expectations, adjectives will be your undoing.

Imagine that you are assigning a team member to a new project. You state the mission, perhaps, “Build me a presentation I can use to launch the new performance management system.”

Ok, sounds good.

You know you need to say more than that, so you clarify exactly what you’re looking for, “I’d like the presentation to be really innovative. Be bold!” You pat yourself on the back, award yourself manager of the month.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the employee for a moment. You know that you need to build out a presentation on the new performance management system. That’s clear. But innovative? Bold? What exactly does your boss mean by that? Are we talking emphatic statements about the dire consequences for managers who don’t complete their reviews or was she thinking of a nifty Prezi format with bright colors, flying elements, and video clips?


Unfortunately, too many employees won’t feel comfortable asking you to elaborate. Instead, they’ll go off and do their version of innovative and bold and you won’t know until it’s too late that their version of bold and yours were miles apart. At that point, you’ll be disappointed, they’ll be frustrated, and there won’t be enough time for a total rewrite.

Adjectives let you both down.

I frequently hear fickle adjectives laced throughout managers’ expectations:

Be professional, be proactive, be collaborative, be authentic, be compelling, be reasonable.

And don’t forget concise, accurate, conservative, detailed, original, and timely.

What do you mean?!?!

Each adjective is open to interpretation and susceptible to triggering vastly different behavior than you were looking for.

Verbs and Nouns to the Rescue

What is a self-respecting manager left to do? Why, call in the calvary, of course! Good old-fashioned verbs and nouns to the rescue.

When you switch from adjectives to verbs and nouns, you clarify whether, “Be concise” means, “Get it on one page,” (or on five, or fifty). You might even want the person to “Include as much detail as is helpful in the appendix but include only the current quarter figures in the main document.” If you want concise, tell them what concise means to you.

“Be collaborative” is very different if you mean, “Invite one person from each function to the kickoff meeting,” versus “Don’t finalize the plan until you have written sign-off from each functional VP.” Do you want the former collaboration-light or the latter true co-creation?

If you’re trying to set clear expectations, eschew the adjectives, scuttle the subjective! Nail it down with nouns and verify with verbs.

What’s the vaguest and most unhelpful adjective-laden expectation you remember receiving? I’d love to hear your stories.

Further Reading

How to Get People To Live Up to Your Expectations

Pass the Accountability

Exercise: If we really meant it…