How to ensure your staff really understand your expectations

Unclear or misunderstood expectations can lead to a drop in performance, along with conflict between a manager and a team member. This is an issue which has been coming up in many of my coaching and training sessions with managers.

A Gallup survey of 2.2million employees across 550 organisations found that only half were clear on what was expected of them. The same was true of the managers of those employees.

As well as causing friction between colleagues, a lack of clarity about expectations has a knock-on effect on performance and customer satisfaction.

Here are five things you can do to ensure everyone is on the same page:

1. Don’t assume understanding – ask the person to tell you what they’ve understood you’ve asked them to do. One manager I worked with, Adam, had a problem with poor performance in his team. This was resulting in a spiral where Adam was getting increasingly frustrated and most of his team wanted to avoid him as much as possible. This meant one-to-one and team meetings were done in double quick time with little quality two-way discussion. Something Adam tried, following one of our coaching sessions, was to ask team members to play back to him what they had understood he’d asked them to do. Following a few of these conversations with different team members, Adam learned he wasn’t as clear as he could be. He tended to bring additional things into his request which ended up confusing people and meaning people were unclear on what the main thing was.

2. Define what success would look like and the positive consequences of this. The more specific you can be, the better. This taps in to the concept of Contingent Reward Leadership (CRL) which Bernard Bass wrote about in his book Transformational leadership: Industrial, military and educational impact  Essentially, CRL involves managers clarifying work role and task requirements and providing recognition and financial rewards to employees, dependent on their meeting performance expectations.

3. Ask the person what they think they need in order to achieve success. The Harvard professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, refers to this as Structural Empowerment, where people have adequate access to information, resources and support, as well as sufficient opportunities to learn. The support you give can make a difference. Researchers at Binghamton University found that compassion almost always pays off, especially when combined with the enforcement of clear goals and benchmarks.

4. If you are delegating a piece of work, think about where the person is and what they can realistically achieve. I often hear managers talk about delegation as a homogenous thing, i.e you either delegate or you don’t, when it’s so much more nuanced than that. Linda Hill and Kent Lineback wrote about this in their book, Being the boss: Three imperatives for becoming a great leader when they talk about the three levels of delegation.  Naphtali Hoff also wrote a great piece about delegation.

5. No surprises – make it safe to tell you if things aren’t going to plan and expectations aren’t being met. Research from the University of Michigan recorded communication between nurses and doctors. One of the main findings was that nurses were afraid to speak the truth to doctors because of power imbalance due to the hierarchical nature of the organisation. If you work in a particularly hierarchical organisation then you need to be extra explicit that it’s okay to tell you when things are going awry. When I managed a team I always made clear that it was important I had no surprises, particularly as I was often working with the chief executive and other senior people. This is partly about managing your reaction when told bad news that something hasn’t happened when it should have, or been done to the quality expected. Being disappointed is fine. Going ape s**t is not. The latter is a fast-track to ensuring people keep things hidden until it’s too late.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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