“Every major disappointment is a failure to explain expectations.”
This is my favorite line from the entire interview with Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager.
It reminds me of the quote I’ve mentioned in this On Leadership blog many times from our FranklinCovey colleague Blaine Lee:
“Nearly all, if not all conflict in life comes from mismatched or unfulfilled expectations.”
I included this quote in most of my keynote speeches because it’s so piercingly true and valuable to all leaders. For that matter, all people.
It’s such valuable advice that Stephen M.R. Covey, author of the book The Speed of Trust, included it as one of the 13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders (#9 is Clarify Expectations).
In case you’re not convinced, in my first book, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow, I dedicate entire chapters to Declaring Your Intent and Talking Straight, which emphasize that the responsibility is yours if someone you’re talking to is confused.
Managers and leaders, and I’ll use them interchangeably for ease of understanding, must take full responsibility for clarifying their vision, strategy, end in mind, and outcome. I’ve worked with leaders who are incredibly strategic thinkers, far beyond my ability but completely lack the competence to talk simply and disclose their entire agenda upfront. This is less a criticism of their character and more an insight into their communication style.
Here are five ways to immediately improve your ability, in every role you play, to ensure those responsible for executing your vision do so with excellence:
- Do not confuse the clarity you have in your mind with the clarity someone else takes away from your conversation. Pay careful attention to the words you use. Talk simply. Break the concepts down into language, stories, examples, and metaphors that will resonate with the other person’s experiences. I find that metaphors are an excellent communication tool for painting a visual and mental picture that people can hang on to.
- Perhaps consider drawing out your plan, strategy, or vision on a chart, model, or visual story. Most people resonate with visuals and are primarily visual learners. It may seem silly, but some of my best internal communication campaigns were built around a cartoon series or sketches so colleagues of widely varying experiences could build common understanding.
- Take the extra time to explain why you’re thinking what you’re thinking. Although somewhat of a cliché, the phrase “sharing the why behind the what” is immensely valuable. Others don’t know why until you tell them why. Assume at your peril that people understand your intentions.
- Consider asking others to repeat the strategy back to you. Out loud, in front of others. Not as a witness on the stand, but to ensure you’ve been clear. Say, “I’ve found sometimes I struggle converting my thoughts into words. Would anyone be willing to repeat back what you think I’ve said? This will help me understand if I’ve been successful or need to make another attempt.” If that doesn’t work for you, make it your own. Take responsibility for your behavior.
- And finally, do not insult your colleagues or associates by pretending you care about their positions on an issue when you’ve already made up your mind. Too many leaders, under the guise of looking collaborative, waste precious time insulting the intelligence of others by inviting pretend dialog and debate on a decision that’s already been made. If this is the case (and sometimes it is your prerogative to make a decision unilaterally), have the courage and the guts to say it: “I’ve decided we are going to do X, and I do not want to debate that decision. It has been made and will be our strategy and we will execute it. I am, however, pleased to answer any clarifying questions you have about why we’re pursuing this direction or obstacles you see to executing, so we all know what we’re facing in the weeks ahead.” I can’t recover the hours I’ve spent thinking something was in debate, when in fact it was long since decided. Just tell me, I’m an adult. Leaders have the prerogative to make a decision without a consensus. Just respect your team enough to say when this is the case.
Remember, there’s a direct correlation to the likelihood of success on your project and your ability to ensure everyone involved is as clear as you are.
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