Great Expectations

The clearer the goal, the better the performance

I've got a conundrum. My cleaner isn't cleaning the house to my exacting standards. I know, first world problems and all that. Still, I can't help but rage over the cobwebs in the corners, the dust under the sofa, that one strip of glass on the shower door that she always misses. She probably thinks she's over-achieving as she cleans the house in less time than the previous lady. In reality, I'd rather she took her time and did a thorough job. Yet every week I thank her, hand over the money and never, ever tell her I'm unhappy.

It's not just my Britishness that's stopping me from complaining. It's the feeling that it's actually my fault for not being explicit about my expectations when she first started a year ago. A bit like when you miss someone's name when you're first introduced, I now feel far too much water has gone under the bridge to bring up the subject. If only I had given her a written checklist from the outset. Or at least raised the issues after the first couple of weeks.

I'm sharing this story of woe with you not just for your sympathy but because it echoes a problem I hear over and over again when I'm coaching leaders around holding people to account for their performance. We all appreciate the important role honest, on-going feedback plays in our people's development. But when you haven't been clear about your expectations up front, it can feel awkward, if not impossible, to raise the subject of under-performance.

I once coached a director of a media agency who had a real bug-bear when it came to grammar. In his mind, poor grammar is a sign of poor thinking. If someone in his team sent him a presentation to approve before a client meeting and he found a typo in it, he felt compelled to rewrite the whole presentation. This took time he could best use elsewhere and eventually led to his team passing him half-arsed presentations, knowing he'd rewrite them anyway. Only after he’d sat his team down and explained the importance of spell-check did his expectations become explicit and their performance had a chance to measure up.

As it is for managers and their teams, so it is for businesses and their people. Considering our industry is meant to be about communication, it never fails to surprise me how vague we are with each other about how the work should get done.

As Katzenbach and Smith point out in their work on the discipline of teams, “If a team fails to establish specific performance goals….team members become confused, pull apart, and revert to mediocre performance.”

So, while we're all in objective-setting mode for 2016, why not use this as an opportunity to be really clear with your people about your expectations about how the work gets done. Likewise, it’s a great opportunity to ask them what they expect from you as their leader. And much like the cleaning list, if it's written down in detail and agreed up front, it makes those future tricky conversations so much easier to have.



Date posted: 25 January 2016