How To Use Position Agreements To Set Expectations Between Managers And Employees

By David Mizne

What is business coaching?

Ha! That’s a trick question. We addressed that in the first installment in this interview series with EMyth CEO Martin Kamenski. You can read more about it here.

In all seriousness though, many coaching programs focus on creating processes and systems. So what tools and strategies can business owners use to align managers and employees around expectations, and to set standards for achieving objectives?

EMyth has a great solution called Position Agreements. These are documents that hold each employee accountable by giving them clear responsibilities and guidelines for their work performance driven by a manager’s expectations. Below, I ask Martin for deeper insights into how these work…

Managers and Employees

Janet Beatty’s blog series on creating Org Charts & Position Agreements explains these really powerful tools. Do some employees or managers feel intimidated about living up to their ends of the agreement?

What’s really intimidating to employees is not having a clear sense of what their job entails. We’ve all seen job descriptions that give a vague sense of the role in the organization, but fall short of actually describing the specific work to be done and how to do it. The real power here is not so much about the tool, but about the clarity it creates from the owner of the company all the way down to the entry-level staff.

It’s helpful for managers to have expectations clearly articulated to their staff. When employees don’t have those boundaries and performance indicators, their job can feel infinite and without satisfaction. Everyone wants to say, “I nailed my job this week!”

When agreements between managers and employees are not met, opportunities emerge to have open and honest conversations. It’s not enough to note that a new development project wasn’t released on time, go deeper:

Why was that the case?

Was the employee not provided support?

Or was this an isolated incident due to a system failure? OK, then we can go fix that.

Or is this a recurring issue because the scope of the employee’s role is too broad? That might need addressing instead.

Position agreements are a valuable means of holding the employee accountable. But the bigger benefit is providing clarity so both the employee and manager can relax into knowing they know what’s expected and what they can count on.

There’s something special that happens when you put a great employee in a well-defined role: they soar. They’re not wasting energy worrying about what they’re not doing, or if they’re doing it right. Instead, they’ve got clear expectations they can meet and they become partners with you in evolving the role to its highest potential.

Position Agreements and OKRs

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are very popular these days, and they seem a stark contrast to Position Agreements since OKRs are more aspirational and designed to yield a ~65% completion score, whereas Position Agreements are designed to yield 100% of the agreed upon results. Can the two be used together, or is it one or the other? Is there a circumstance where one is preferred – for example large vs small businesses?

I don’t believe that Position Agreements and OKRs are mutually exclusive. The nice thing about OKRs is that they are meant to clearly tie back to goals set forth in the vision of a company. But the fact that they are meant to be “stretch” goals is where they start to differ from a Position Agreement.

Free Guide: Get the Ultimate Guide for Making OKRs Work At Your Company. Download Now

The Position Agreement is an expression of the different types of work the employee is responsible for (tactical, managerial, etc) and the way you need the work done (standards that the company sets). 

Another important aspect of Position Agreements is that they are made for a role, not for a person. Here’s why this is important. Let’s say you have a marketing role and somebody you hire for that position has extra skills like coding. So you add that to their job description. What happens when they leave? You have now designed a role that would be very difficult to re-hire for.

When a company sets about to create its organizational strategy, it thinks about creating roles that need to be filled for the company to achieve desired results. The Position Agreement are the expectations on that role that are set in order to meet the overarching goals. 

Beyond that, can employees and employers design OKRs to try new methods, test boundaries, or grow more? Absolutely. But if you must have only one or the other, Position Agreements are so crucial. It’s easy to see why: a 65% completion on an OKR that is motivational and helps people think big is great… but this gets fuzzy. The question remains: What can the company count on the employee to do?

The company size doesn’t really matter here. Businesses large and small need people all on the same page contributing something that the company can count on. If you’re relying solely on OKRs, you may never know what happened with the 35% that didn’t get done – Was the strategy off or did people just not contribute what they needed to? I’d rather have a team with clear baseline expectations, let me and them know when those have been met, and then leave space to aspire and dream above and beyond that.

Learn More: How to deal with poor employee performance. Before letting someone go, here are some ideas to help get to the root of the problem. 

Standards and Autonomy

Reading about the Position Agreement, I noticed that one of the tenets is “standards” which describe how the work should be performed. This seems to eliminate autonomy, which Dan Pink advises is one of the key ingredients for employee satisfaction. How do you reconcile this?

It would be limiting to think of a minimum expectation, or a way things ought to be done, to be devoid of any autonomy. For example, we know that it’s up to our front-line facing staff to be educated and trained in our principles, and how we want to treat people to create a consistent experience. Those principles may result in a variety of different outcomes based on their personal decision making, but we’ve provided them the structure that’s necessary to show care.

One of the challenges you face without structure or training is that it creates an inconsistent experience. You may have an amazing service rep and others who are average. How do you start to evaluate and improve them? Without standards that need to be met, it becomes much more difficult to have conversations about performance.

Managers still want to promote autonomy and push down decision-making where possible, but without clear performance expectations, failure has no context. When your staff starts seeing people let go because they “weren’t right”, you’ll have a team walking around in fear that they might be fired at any moment for “doing the wrong thing”.  That happens because company leaders never took the time to explain what “right” looks like. You’ve paralyzed the very people that you need functioning in a confident and relaxed manner.

Maybe you don’t create or implement specific templates or a decision tree that explains how and why to give a refund, because you want to trust people to do the right thing with less structure. They still need a description of how they do their work.  Explain that you require them to make those decisions guided by the company principles. And be clear about what those principles are and how they look in action.

As long as an employee take the time to stop and think, to consider those principles before acting, both the manager and the employee know that they’ve done what’s best for your customers.

Image Credit: JD Hancock

Martin Kamenski is the CEO of EMyth, the business coaching company that has created meaningful change in the lives and businesses of tens of thousands of business owners over the last three decades. He is also a contributor to EMyth’s blog and the host of its monthly podcast, “On It”

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  • This is an issue I see over and over again in development teams. There are a few tasks where no one really knows who is responsible for taking on until someone gets in trouble for not doing it.

  • Another great piece. Loved the Sinek interview and here you have Pink. Outstanding.
    I’ve been advocating for this approach wherein the “job description” becomes something more valuable than it is in most organizations.
    Usually, a “job description” is very stagnant. It’s not personal. It’s filed away and forgotten. It is past or at best present focused (and likely outdated very quickly). It’s something given to the employee as direction with little to no input. “Here’s what we need to you do. Go do it.”
    The key difference here is in the subtle implications, the mindset behind it all. An “agreement” (or even “contract” if we were so bold) is action-based. It is personal. It’s agreeing on exactly what is expected, responsibilities, etc. It’s both sides coming together and shaking hands, signing dotted lines, etc. It creates movement. It is forward/future focused.
    Most valuable of all: it creates the starting point for ongoing discussion. It’s a measuring stick to frame other discussions around and measure progress against. It keeps it active and present. It becomes relevant.
    Serving as a starting point for performance conversations is key. That’s where the accountability comes into play. Those conversations, held regularly (I usually recommend bi-weekly) and in a coaching manner, will do more to elevate the results in the organization than possibly any other activity. The supervisor’s leadership skills grow. The employee’s engagement increases. Everything moves forward, and when it doesn’t, there is the established practice to address it.
    When those regular conversations take place, it’s important to keep it in a forward-focused tone. For example, one of the questions above, “Why was that the case?” could be improved. “Why” questions immediately put the person asked on the defensive. A subtle shift re-frames it to working together for a better future: “What caused this to be the result?” or, to open it up a bit to more possibilities, “What might be some factors that led to this?” Even more future-focused: “What are some things we could do differently to possibly change the result in the future?”
    As for finding the balance between structure and autonomy, this is one of those areas where Gerber leans a bit too heavy on systematic structure: people repeating the same thing every time like machines. That’s built on the notion of an “unskilled work force” (which I’d argue doesn’t exist – there is a workforce full of skills and potential that aren’t being tapped into). That’s the industrial thinking that’s created many of the messes we have today, and an overly emphasized focus on systems and structure diminishes employee expression, creativity, contribution, and engagement. Better to define where the lane is, teach how to drive in it, then let the person take the wheel.
    Horst Schulze (former Ritz-Carlton president) is very passionate about this. I remember him talking at the Global Leadership Summit in 2015 about training staff on the vision and mission: the principles. Then defining the parameters (every R-C staff member (regardless of position: groundskeeper, room cleaner, manager, …everyone) has discretion to do whatever they feel is best for the customer up to a $500 limit or something like that). Then setting them free within that. Then, they review what was done to improve the results (and learn what ideas worked/didn’t and share that info with others), but not to admonish creative expression and initiative. Brilliant example of creating a consistent structure with room for autonomy.
    The more we can model that approach and find the balance within each business, the better cultures we create and the more people become engaged and choose to shine. Imagine what the results could be if were able to create environments that allow the “fully engaged” level to move from 15% to even just 30%, then 50%! It would change our world.
    …but that’s a discussion for another day. 🙂


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