Optimizing Employee Performance: Part 1, Setting Expectations

Richard Stup, Cornell University

Spring is just around the corner and the ag workforce is growing as farms gear up for another busy season. It’s a great time to make sure you are ready to make the most of every employee relationship. Your supervision and leadership is a key factor in helping your employees perform at the highest possible level. The Performance Triad captures the 3 essential supervisory leadership practices to optimize employee performance: clarifying your expectations, training, and providing performance feedback.

It seems simple, but it’s often overlooked, if you want the best performance from your employees then you must make your expectations crystal clear. A farm owner set a goal for next year that required more timely corn planting. To make that goal a reality, he met with his shop manager in December and asked him to go over the corn planter and replace any worn parts so that they could minimize breakdowns in planting season. The shop manager agreed to that idea and put it on the list of things to get done. Meanwhile, the shop manager got back to work on the engine overhaul he had going that winter and supporting the rest of the team with routine facility repairs and snow removal. Soon enough, it was early April and the farm owner checked in with the shop manager about the planter. The shop manager had started the planter repairs just yesterday, he ordered parts but some were unavailable and were put on backorder, it might be up to three weeks before he got the needed parts. The parts might not be in until late April and the planter might not be ready until early May. The farm owner’s goal of smooth, timely corn planting was wrecked, this year would be a scramble like always. What happened? 

Our farm owner wasn’t clear enough in setting expectations for the shop manager. His goal of being prepared for corn planting was good, he met with his shop manager in December, plenty of time to get the planter ready. The breakdown started when he didn’t communicate his expectation for the shop manager to start on the planter project well ahead of time so that the machine was easily ready when needed. The breakdown continued when our owner didn’t communicate with the shop manager about the planter all winter. Our shop manager was busy working on other important farm projects that winter and he thought he had more time. Our farm owner should have shared a date by which he expected the planter to be ready and discussed with the shop manager a few milestones that would be needed to make that happen.

Communicate expectations clearly and you’re a lot more likely to get what you want! Communicate poorly and who knows what you’ll get! Managers often have lots of details in their heads and lots of assumptions about what employees already know. Employees can’t read your mind so it’s up to you to communicate, and don’t let your assumptions prevent you from communicating all of the details.



We have several management tools that are really all about clarifying expectations:

  • Job descriptions are meant to clarify exactly what an employee’s duties are and how they relate to other people in the business. We clarify the big picture job expectations for each employee through their job description.
  • Work communications is the daily, weekly, and monthly plan you use to communicate with everyone in the business. What, you don’t have a work communication plan!? Then make one. Some employees need a plan communicated every day, especially in busy seasons when weather and priorities change quickly. Most employees need to hear from supervisors at least weekly to learn what the week’s priorities are. Some middle managers need monthly check-ins with senior managers to report progress and adjust priorities. Make sure your team is getting the communication they need, if you’re not sure what they need, start by asking them!
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs). Finally, SOPs are all about communicating your detailed expectations of exactly how important farm procedures should be done. Agriculture is highly competitive and the margins are tight, SOP’s communicate the best, most efficient way to perform a task.



The first step to optimizing employee performance is clarifying your expectation precisely and clearly. Once those performance expectations are clear it’s much easier to train and give feedback that will help your employees perform well and help everyone to succeed. We’ll explore the rest of the Performance Triad, training and feedback, in future posts.

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