In our earlier post, we introduced the five issues that can keep your employees from executing your business strategy. In this post, we will look at the first of those – setting clear objectives. In my experience, most performance issues can be eliminated by clearly communicating exactly what and how you expect your employees to perform.
Supervisors spend the bulk of their time communicating instructions to employees. They ask employees to complete specific tasks or solve issues. They write e-mails delegating work assignments. And, they train employees in new skills and behaviors. However, most supervisors fail to consistently ensure they are understood. Following the three steps outlined below will help you communicate your expectation clearly.
Whether written or verbal, instructions must give the employee enough detailed information that he or she can complete the task correctly. The amount of detail needed will change given the employee’s experience with that specific task. However, supervisors and managers should err on the side of too much rather than too little detail. Most mistakes happen when employees try to “fill in the blanks” and end with the supervisor stating, “That’s not what I meant.” Instructions that are measurable and quantifiable make it easier for both the employee and employer to know when the objective has been met. Asking an employee to, “answer the phone” is marginal. Asking them to, “to answer the phone within three rings, using a specific greeting and a pleasant tone of voice” is more likely to get you the behavior you want. Finally, instructions should be bounded by time and other resources. Providing employees with beginning and ending dates helps to cement expectations. Managers and supervisors should detail at the start of the process who the employee can involve, if they can hire additional help or if money and other resources can be used to complete the task.
Even after providing detailed instructions, the manager or supervisor must check for understanding. If you don’t, and the employee does not “get it right,” the fault lies with the sender, not the receiver. Let’s work through an example. At 8:00 a.m., a senior executive tells his direct report that he needs some information on the company’s parking lot. At 2:00 p.m. that afternoon the employee appears at the executive’s door stating that she is leaving for the day – as she does every day at that time. When asked for the parking lot information, she explains that she will have it ready first thing in the morning. She plans to complete the report that evening. The executive is upset as he needs the report for an important meeting at 4:00 p.m. that day. The employee is devastated at having disappointed her boss and offers to stay to complete the report even though she needs to pick up her children. The executive tells her it is okay to leave. He will do without the information. However, this greatly reduces the productivity and results of his staff meeting. When the executive related the story to me, I asked if he had been clear as to what time he needed the information and how the information would be used. He confessed he had not. When I asked how his employee could be expected to know what he wanted, he uttered the all too normal response, “But, I am her boss. I expected her to do my work first.” Had he checked for understanding by asking, “By what time do you think you could have that ready?” the executive could have clarified the objective. Other questions that check for understanding include:
From where will you get the information?
In what format will you write the report?
Who else will you involve in the process?
Asking open-ended questions allows you to dialog with your employee and ascertain whether you have been successful in transmitting your request. Avoid closed-ended questions such as, “Do you understand?” Closed-ended questions do not invite dialog and will not tell you if the employee truly understands.
The final step is to set a follow-up time, date and location. If you need a report by 4:00 p.m. you and your employee should agree that you will receive the information, at your office, at an earlier time (say 1:00 p.m.) in order to review and approve the work. If the job is complicated or if this is the first time the employee will attempt the task, you may want to set multiple follow-ups before they deliver the final product. If the executive in our example had given a specific, quantifiable and bounded objective; checked for understanding; or set a follow-up time allowing for rework or redirection, the outcome would have been different. Remember, when you set objectives, your job is to clearly relay your expectations to the employee. Following the three steps detailed above will help to eliminate miscommunication.