I have a friend who leads a Human Resources consultancy. He often uses the phrase: “Why don’t employees do what they are supposed to do?” to market his services. I have often told him that he should add “Why don’t bosses explain what they really want?” to the mix.
When it comes to getting things done with people, ambiguity breeds mediocrity. Employees and managers alike become frustrated when expectations are not met. The problem often arises because of a breakdown in communication. The more ambiguous goals and expectations are, the greater the chance for an average or worse outcome.
However, effective communication is a two-way street.
In some cases, employees do not clearly understand goals and expectations and don’t take the time to clarify the situation with their boss.
In other instances, employees are consciously or subconsciously comfortable with the ambiguity. They avoid clarity and are content to do what they think is necessary because when ambiguity exits, accountability is reduced or eliminated.
On the other hand, supervisors are often guilty of thinking they are on the same page as their team, when in reality they have not provided the necessary specifics to ensure success. Or they do not empower employees to think and make decisions that could improve outcomes.
Leaders need to provide clear direction and ensure clarity of expectations. They should talk openly with team members about what the outcome of the project should be, when it will be completed, and what employees should do if help is needed or when they hit a roadblock.
Managers should involve the employees in setting deadlines as well. Often, employees will offer a tighter deadline than the manager expected. If they ask for a later deadline, you at least gain an understanding of why they think more time is necessary and you find out sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, leaders should use a combination of communication tactics, rather than just a meeting, email or telephone call. Combining face-to-face and written correspondence gives team members the benefit of both verbal and non-verbal communication, the chance to interact, and specific details in writing.
If you are the person receiving the instructions, you, too, have a responsibility to clearly define the expectations. Repeat back to the leader what you think is expected and obtain agreement on goals, expectations and action steps to be completed. Ask what you should do when you encounter a ‘bump in the road’ because you inevitably will.
Move off the path to mediocrity. Communicate clearly, reduce ambiguity and make a commitment to excellence.
David M. Mastovich, MBA, is the president of Massolutions, a Pittsburgh based Integrated Marketing firm that focuses on improving the bottom line for client companies through creative marketing, selling, messaging and customer experience enhancement.