4 Strategies For Clearly Communicating Expectations

By Steve Morris | Fast Company | June 23, 2015


We once worked with Jack, a new leader who was having trouble getting his small team of programmers to deliver computer code on time and at the quality he expected.

Each Monday he assigned work verbally during brief phone meetings with his remotely located engineers. During one meeting he said: “We’ll need the code for the first page of the basket project by Friday.” When Friday came and went, the team leader not only failed to deliver, but she also never contacted Jack to renegotiate the deadline. When he asked her why, she replied: “I didn’t realize that your statement was a request.”

We call a statement like Jack’s a weather report. It’s a vague declaration that contains no call to action, and assumes compliance without asking for agreement. Making weather reports is a common mistake among leaders who assume that when they tell someone what they need, it should be understood as an assignment. This kind of casual delegation works with some of the people some of the time, but not with all of the people all of the time.

A Culture of Accountability

Weather reports are like throwing darts at a party. In all the chaos and distraction, they frequently miss the target. To build a culture of accountability, managers must set up responsibility by communicating clear expectations—by asking for, making, keeping, renegotiating, following through, and following up on agreements. Setting up accountability works best when it is done purposefully through effective communication.

Jack should have asked his direct report: “Do you agree to get me the code for the first page of the basket project by Friday?” If she agreed, he should then say, “Can you warn me by Thursday night if you will be late so I can alert the webmaster that we can’t meet the deadline?” and then receive her agreement to that request as well. This way, if she didn’t deliver, Jack could refer specifically to the two broken agreements she had made with him. There would be no doubt about accountability.

Leading accountability—instead of simply expecting it—builds alignment, fosters mutual trust and respect, co-ordinates action, and ultimately achieves results among you and your team. Here are four critical steps to establishing accountability:

1. Consider Past Experience

Before making a request for action and agreement, evaluate behavior patterns and the delivery record of the person with whom you are working.

If they have reliably delivered in the past, then you might expect that that they will do it again. If a person has failed to deliver to your satisfaction, try making your requests more specific.

2. Eliminate Ambiguity

With people who frequently claim misunderstanding, be prepared to ask for exactly what you want. Include details that might be misconstrued and emphasize things they have missed or failed at in the past.

Point out what you don’t want, as well as what you do want. Tell the person who and what is dependent on their compliance. This specificity creates a clear frame, describing the deliverable and its importance.

3. Always Ask The Minimum Question

When setting up accountability, always ask: “Will you deliver [a project] by a specific date?” Be sure to ask who will deliver what project by a specific deadline. Without this question, you leave plenty of room for ambiguity and misinterpretation.

4. Obtain A Detailed Commitment

Your accountability commitment must include words such as, “I agree,” “I will deliver,” or “I will make that date.” Without an agreement, you are holding your team members accountable to an assumption of agreement they may not perceive. A blank stare or no response at all is not a sign of agreement.

Making weather reports leaves too much to chance. If you regularly use accountability agreements, then your team will function more smoothly. You will be able to decrease misunderstandings around deliverables and expectations.

Steve Morris is a leadership coach, author, and partner at ChoiceWorks Inc., a consultancy focused on creating accountability for results with individuals and cultures in diverse industries. Steve is also a faculty member for The Complete Leader.


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