• Kieran Doherty

Behavioural Expectations: the conversations we really need to have

Behavioural expectations are often thought about in the context of general behaviours within an organisation. They can be understood as an overarching set of rules and principles aiming to guide a consistent standard of accepted behaviour by all employees or members.

Sometimes included in employment contracts or when joining a sports club, you may never read them again unless there has been a breach. The problem is that we behave everyday across a range of dynamic situations and people still experience conflicts in their expectations of each other's behaviour. While some level of conflict can lead to growth, too much and… well it sucks, for everyone.

Behaviour can be described as anything we do that can be perceived externally. That includes anything others see us do, hear us say, or feel us action. Our expectations are fundamentally our beliefs about what will happen or will be acted. The key word here being belief, which can be constructed without proof.

It can be a bit scary to think about behavioural expectations, let alone committing to having a conversation about them. But as described in my article on communication, achieving common understanding is crucial whenever we work with another individual or within teams or organisations. So where do behavioural expectations play a role in our work environments and how do we navigate the conversations about them?

Let's build a picture.

I decided to start playing football again at the ripe old age of 35. It had been 20 years since I last played football and I think my trigger to start playing again was similar for others, our kids. You happily take your young one to sign-on-day, then their first training session and game. You walk across the pitch, feel the grass under your feet, and when that stray ball rolls towards you, you pass it back to the young player with barely concealed determination to make it the best damn pass the club has ever seen. That's when the ideas come rushing in, “Yeah, I could do this, after work, bit of training, game on the weekend.”

Then I found out that there was a local team entering into the over 35s league and they didn’t want to train, just play on Friday night and have a beer afterwards. Jackpot, I was in.

What does this have to do with behavioural expectations? Well, the team I joined was actually full of football coaches, some of whom had grown up in England living and breathing football their whole life. Their background and understanding of the game was vastly different to mine. I grew up in Australia where the last team I played for was the high school team that didn’t have a teacher who wanted to coach us. As you might imagine, the playing behaviour expectations for field position, body position, communication, timing and passing were not on the same planet.

However, an important point to note here, while we were essentially aliens to each other in regards to football playing behaviour, we were all playing for the same purpose: just to be out there on the pitch, playing football again. (We’ll venture into the realm of Purpose in an upcoming article).

When our first Friday night game came around the excitement was high. We were all stoked to be stepping out onto the pitch in our playing kit, and also quietly praying to not twist an ankle or pull a hamstring. Our experienced players naturally took leading roles in directing play and it didn’t take too long to realise the wide gulf between playing (behaviour) expectations.

I was told to play forward. Ok. I stayed up front and sort of danced around the opponent’s defenders like an excited puppy assuming the ball would make its way to me. We had different behavioural expectations for playing forward. To me playing forward was playing high up front. To our more experienced and knowledgeable players the expectation was that someone playing forward would: position themselves according to where play was happening on the field, find gaps in the defence and make runs into space for the midfielders to pass to. Therefore, opening up scoring opportunities. I had some learning and growth ahead of me.

What does this look like in the work environment?

In one of my previous roles I was leading a team at a time when a significant change to the software programs we were using was taking place across the organisation. During this transition I actively jumped into the new software to play with it and find out what we could do with it. I was impressed with the functionality and easy user interface, and I built a new tool for our team to test, which could help streamline some of our more mandraulic processes. I unconsciously held some behavioural expectations about this. For example, I expected:

  • Team members would know how to play and test the new tool.

  • Team members would have already familiarised themselves with how to access the new software programs.

  • Team members had read and understood the regular company communication advising that the organisation would have to begin using the new software programs exclusively in the near future.

Some of the team members had been raising the issue that our processes were not efficient for a long time, so the idea of a potential solution was well received. I misread that positivity and expected it would lead to a range of actions (behaviours) - but it didn’t. The potential for conflict had arisen based on different behavioural expectations.

What usually happens for people in these scenarios is that some form of feedback starts to occur. This feedback can vary from pleasant conversations that clarify understanding to heated arguments. Obviously, clarifying understanding can lead to growth and arguments can lead to a range of undesirable impacts on individuals, teams and organisations. Time is lost, energy is drained, motivation can plummet.

So what can we do about it?

The answer has been with us the entire time. Instead of waiting to feed back on behavioural expectations we can feed forward. And the way we hold these conversations is exactly the same.

Most feedback models that aim to help people construct and hold feedback conversations have two common elements: 1. What was the behaviour? 2. What was the impact of that behaviour? To hold a conversation and help define behavioural expectations we can apply the same elements before an activity: 1. How do we want/need to behave? 2. What will be the impact of that behaviour?

What does it look like?

For the new software scenario, one possible conversation I could have led with the team may have been:

As you have heard from the company communications, we will need to migrate to the new software programs soon. Towards that end, I propose that we start familiarising ourselves with the new programs. Does anyone have any concerns or other ideas on this?” Once we have consensus then: “Going forward, do we all agree that:

  • (Behaviour) Everyone will access and familiarise themselves with the new programs within the next week so that (Impact) we all know how to access the programs.

  • (Behaviour) People who are interested, can begin designing new tools in the programs that (Impact) will help create efficiencies in our processes.

  • (Behaviour) When a potential new tool is created we will all test it to (Impact) check the appropriateness of the solution and identify potential improvements."

While the ability to hold a conversation like this is dependent on other factors such as trust and cohesion, the conversation could have been conducted quickly and established common understanding and agreement on behavioural expectations. Feeding forward can remove the potential for unnecessary arguments and conflict, and even provide the accurate language to feed back to each other when the outcomes are achieved.

Misplaced, misinformed or misunderstood behavioural expectations can play a major role in our everyday interactions with other individuals or within teams or organisations. They have the potential to cripple our ability to perform together. They can also be addressed by simply having a conversation on what the desired behaviours should be and what the impacts will be. We don’t have to wait to feed back, we can start to feed forward.


I actually scored the first goal in that first game within the first minute of kick-off. It was a shock to us and our opponents. It was a messy goal and probably more accidental than anything. We ended up losing the game 8-1.

We finished the season with the highest negative goal difference known for the league and were rightfully awarded the wooden spoon. It was my favourite season of football ever. We realised our purpose; we were on the pitch, playing football, having a ball.

The following season, we had many requests from other players wanting to join our team.

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