“Sir, I do not understand”
This month’s title comes from my days as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and was one of the only four answers we could give as plebes (freshmen) when questioned by upper-classman. As I do a fair share of key note team presentations and workshops on Effective Communications, I thought it appropriate to the subject. Effective communications, or the lack thereof is, in my experience, the number one issue in business today. An issue because we are communicating more, yet listening less. We are blitzed with content and yet struggle to put the content into a reliable context of our leadership situation. The result is a too often occurrence of unmet expectations.
The purpose of all communications is to elicit some degree of behavioral response. Any change effort, no matter the scope and scale, begins with understanding expectations. Sustainable success, the ability to repeatedly achieve desired results, begins with the expected outcomes being clearly understood throughout the organization. This clarity of content and context needs to be consistently passed from the leader to the followers and back to the leader. With that in mind, let’s explore the key components of this process.
While much of this discussion speaks to the mechanics of effectively communicating expectations, we would be remiss if we did not speak to the underlying culture of accountability required for it to be successful. The culture of accountability ensures the right people with the right attitudes are collaborating with each other and hold themselves accountable to meet the expectations required to achieve sustainable success.
How do you know your communicated expectations drive the right behaviors?
- Are the expectations clear to the leader? ~ Before any communication can take place, the leader must be clear in her or his mind what the expected change behavior looks like. Asking themselves key questions such as “Who specifically is my target audience?” and “What does the new behavior look like?” Without asking at least these 2 questions, the leader risks being too vague when it comes to communicating her or his expectations. They can become victims of their own experience. I once had a conversation with a frustrated operations executive due to members of his management team not meeting his expectations. He was projecting his 30 years’ experience on a team whose most senior member had just over 5 years of experience! He had to be consciously more aware of the level of clarity needed to successfully communicate his expectations!
- What does the leader communicate and how is the best means to do so? ~ Effective communications occur when the sender and receiver understand the message in the same context. It is more than an exchange of words, it is an exchange of understanding and meaning. Once the leader is clear on their expectations, they must then choose the optimal media to affect a successful exchange of understanding and meaning. Choosing an efficient but less effective media like email for a critical exchange of expectations can lead to frustration and missed business goals. Likewise, using face-to-face meetings that are more effective but less efficient, day-to-day expectations can easily lead to the same level of frustration and a poor level of employee engagement. The correct media is crucial to the mutual understanding of context!
- Do the followers understand and how does the leader know? ~ I’ve had many a conversation with leaders who believe in their communications effectiveness to the point they blame missed expectations on their followers. Unfortunately, no leader is absolved of their responsibility to communicate expectations, especially when the expectations and the behavioral responses are not what was needed based on the leader’s communications. Expected behavior critical to achieving the desired results of the business must be validated between leaders and followers through feedback channels and listening. If the followers do not have the means or opportunity to ask clarifying questions or the leader does not bother to engage in clarifying discussions, the business results are quite predictably negative!