Expect Better

Part Two of Three

A Six Minute Read

Using problem investigations as modern-day witch hunts, to find and assign blame, is simply bad troubleshooting. problems Nevertheless, whether an employee’s actions are the primary root cause, or he is just at the controls when things go wrong, “people” and “problems” go hand in hand. To get past that –  to find the cause-behind-the-cause, and to implement a corrective – it is critical to understand what an employee is supposed to do in the first place.

Assessing Expectations

It has become cliché that “you get results in proportion to what you expect.” If that were true, every leader – from a floor supervisor to CEO – with grand ideas would be awash in stellar outcomes. The fact is, setting clear expectations is difficult, and a skill (such as driving or multitasking) where a majority of people think their talents outpace the average.

One tool consultants use to assess a client’s culture is individual interviews. I have conducted thousands of such interviews, and I reluctantly begin each with the same two questions. “Reluctant” because I can’t believe that anyone in any professional setting could answer “no” to either; yet, nearly every time, the “no’s” outweigh the “yesses” by a margin, typically, of two-to-one. Those questions are:

  • “Have performance expectations been established?”
  • “Have they been clarified with you?”

In other words, “Does your immediate leadership actually know what they want from you, and have they made sure that you know, understand, and can accomplish that?”pull-quote Again, it’s usually in the range of sixty-five percent who, after reflection, say that has not happened.

When I discuss this with said leadership, the automatic reply is typically, “They know what to do.” When I press and ask, “Well, how? What have you told them?”, I tend to get stammered answers with a side order of let’s-move-on.

When solving problems, how is it fair to assign blame to “people” when, by and large, the expectations aren’t clear? (Rhetorical question: It isn’t.) Even in the case study in Part One –Dominic James ditching his aircraft in the Pacific – this seems a reasonable take.

We can’t anticipate every outcome, so to ask “Are their clear expectations about what to do when you don’t have the technology available to accurately build and file a flight plan?” may be too granular, but a fair question certainly would be, “What are the expectations on you when you are uncomfortable with your pre-flight preparations?”

Is the expectation to make do with the best information possible, or is it to sit on the ground until you’re sure it’s safe? If it was the first– which is what Captain James did – then it’s suspect at best to hold him at fault for taking off.

Why Good Expectations Are Important

George Harrison sang, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Likewise, if employees don’t have a clear path of what they should accomplish, anything they do will fit the bill. Being purposely vague does not build empowerment, it sows confusion.

If leaders don’t clarify exactly what they require, then they will never know:

  • How to get it
  • If they got it
  • What went wrong when they didn’t get it
  • How to improve next time

This begins with fully understanding what that expectation is. Regardless of the length of the journey, leaders should have an idea of the first steps. It is important to see this in behavioral terms. To develop this, ask:

  • What, physically, should an employee be doing to demonstrate he is meeting my expectations?
  • If I were directing a silent movie of my employee meeting this expectation, what would I want to see her perform?
  • What is an example of a “good” output? What is an example of a “bad” output? What are some key differences between the two?
  • How else will I know that these expectations are being met?
  • How can I simplify my answers to all of these questions?

For example, imagine you’re coaching Little League, and your expectation is that the players “hustle”. Eight-year-olds buttermakermight not know what that means, so you get specific: Run from the dugout to your position at the start of the inning, and run back at the end; Run as hard as you can on a hit, even if you think you will be out; If you’re on deck, have your helmet on and be swinging before the batter takes his first pitch.

Now, if you wanted your employees to show that they are “taking accountability”, what instructions would you give them?

This does not need to be in the form or at the detailed level of work instructions. The idea is to lay some groundwork and provide concrete examples of what is acceptable.

Understand the Impact

Some expectations must be rigidly adhered to, and some allow several degrees of freedom. For them to exercise good judgment, it is important that employees understand what the ramifications are of meeting or not meeting an expectation. (During many problem investigations, “I didn’t know that would happen if I did ____” is heard.)

Plant supervisors ordered materials without purchase orders or confirming standard costs in the production system. They would sporadically get scolded by Betty in Payables, but that was easier than the paperwork. One Friday at month-end, Betty had enough, and brought them in to help her reconcile packing slips and invoices. When they left the office after midnight, they understood Betty’s frustration and were suddenly more able to meet the expectation of properly documenting requisitions.

Clarify Correctly

Only when you truly understand what you expect, and why it is important, are you ready to discuss this with your staff. Like all communications, how it is presented can be every bit as important as what is presented. Think through:

  • What is the environment in which I want to communicate this?
    (e.g., Staff meeting, training sessions, one-on-one meetings)
  • How will I phrase the expectation-setting?
    Is this an order? Or a request? Are there conditions attached (“If you’re on the phone with clients anyway…”)
  • How will I confirm that each employee understands and agrees with the expectation?
    “Agreeing” with the expectation does not necessarily mean “buy in to”, “love”, or “embrace” the expectation, rather confirming that it is achievable.
  • What will be the appropriate follow-up?

Think hard about how to confirm the message is understood. Lack of pushback, or even agreeable nodding, is not a fair indication. Asking closed questions such as, “Do you understand” at best offers the verbal equivalent of a rubber stamp. Challenge employees to repeat back, or describe, what the expectation is to accomplish. Give them an opportunity to process the information, and check their understanding again. Time spent here is an investment in getting it right later.

Restore Balance

It is telling that there is no synonym for the word “expectation” that doesn’t connote some level of unpredictability: “assumption”, “likelihood”, “supposition”, “conjecture”. To reduce the uncertainty and move from “forecast” to “foregone conclusion”, leaders need to fully understand what they want from their staff before describing it, provide that information with clarity, and confirm that understanding.

Whether recovering from an operator running a machine incorrectly, trying to prevent pilots from taking off in bad conditions, or turning professionals loose to execute a new strategy, problems can frequently be averted by articulating clearly what is expected – and clarifying that it has been understood. In my next post, I will discuss some steps to design an environment that encourages successful execution of those expectations.