Leaders Paint Targets

Posted August 6, 2020

When it comes to helping others perform at their best, there’s a simple thing leaders can do.  Unfortunately, the keyword in that sentence is “can” – leaders can do this, but too few leaders actually do it.  Even though it’s simple and highly effective, leaders resist doing it.

So what is this important thing leaders can (and should) do?  Simple: they set clear expectations.

Through the years, I’ve had scores of leaders hire me to coach their direct reports when what was most needed was for the leader to set expectations.  The typical scenario involves a leader who’s kind of frustrated with an employee who’s not performing.  The leader has in his or her mind a target of what success for the employee looks like, but the leader has not shared this target with the employee.  It’s almost as if the leader expects the employee to be a mind reader.  Instead of clearly articulating what’s expected, too many leaders hold back all the while noticing the employee is not performing up to expectations.  Why don’t leaders clearly set expectations?  It comes down to three reasons.

First, leaders don’t communicate clear expectations because they are not actually as clear as they think they are.  I once had a business owner hire me to coach an underperforming sales director.  I asked the owner to be specific about the gaps between what was expected and what was being delivered, anticipating the owner would mention something having to do with lower-than-expected sales.  But the business owner instead described vague aspects of the sales director’s people skills.  When pressed to be more specific, the business owner rambled out a lot of ambiguous categories of behavior such as interactions and communication.  In the end, most of the coaching was with the business owner, helping him clarify that he wanted the sales director to have regular one-on-one meetings with those he managed.  The business owner had not communicated this expectation because he didn’t really know that’s what he was expecting from the employee.  It took some thinking work for him to clarify for himself what he really expected and needed from the employee.  Remember, true leaders do the work.   

Second, leaders don’t share clear expectations because they feel like they shouldn’t have to; they assume the employee already knows or should know what’s expected.  It’s true that the longer a person is in a static job and the less complex the job is, the more the employee will know what’s expected – after all, expectation don’t change much when nothing else much changes.  But in most roles, the expectations are not that obvious, and even if they are, it will never hurt to communicate the expectations in order to be clearly on the same page.  Most leaders I work with resist saying too much because they mistakenly think they are going to come across patronizing by repeating things they’ve already said.  But the truth is it’s almost impossible to overcommunicate.  People need to hear things over and over in order to hear, understand, retain, and recall what’s important.  Remember, nobody can read your mind unless you speak the words you’re thinking. 

Third, leaders don’t communicate clear expectations because they are bad at communicating.  Most humans learn to talk starting when they’re about two years old, but few humans truly master the art of clear communication, especially when it comes to expectations.  This is the case at work, in family matters, in friendships, and anywhere else expectations are involved.  Communicating your expectations is one of the most important things you can do to establish a strong, healthy relationship.  Doing so in a way that doesn’t sound harsh, demanding, or disappointed takes practice.  Our team coaches a lot (and I mean A LOT!) of leaders to improve their communication and most of the time the challenge is in communicating expectations.  In other words, if you struggle with this, you are not alone.  And if you want to be a strong leader, you will work on improving your communication, so you can clearly communicate expectations, so those expectations can be met, and so, finally you can create the outcomes you are called to create.  Remember, it’s your responsibility to get better at communicating.

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