Is your communication an illusion?

The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished. ~George Bernard Shaw

Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

Are you judging people based on expectations you’ve never communicated? Most of us would quickly respond with “no!” to that question. But, maybe we should all take a step back and consider our actual actions and thoughts before we assume our innocence too hastily.

Dr. Sunnie Giles recently surveyed nearly 200 leaders, worldwide, and asked what they believe are the most critical leadership competencies. One of the top three competencies was communicate clear expectations. I paused and thought about that for a minute. Contemplating what keeps us from communicating clear expectations since that seems fairly straightforward. Examples soon began to flood my mind.

Don’t Hold People Accountable to Expectations You’ve Not Communicated

I recall a nonprofit leader I once worked with who let someone go because they didn’t meet their expectation for dollars raised. Interestingly, the person who was let go exceeded the approved fundraising goal. But the leader had never communicated his real expectation. Why not? Good question. He wasn’t sure they could reach the goal he had in mind and only wanted to approve goals he was confident people could reach. In the end, who did this benefit? Absolutely no one.

Don’t Assume Your Subtleties Communicate Expectations

Another leader came to mind who wanted someone he supervised to change their behavior. He said that he was “subtle” about his expectation but believed (or likely assumed) the person understood. He feared coming across harsh or commanding. What happened? The behavior did not change and eventually the employee resigned. Again, the lack of communicating clear expectations benefited no one.

Don’t Let the Relationship Hinder Clear Expectations

For good measure, here’s one more example that I’ve seen a number of times. Even people who are more commanding by nature will sometimes hold back and not fully state their expectations. In this case, I’ve found the reason to be because they have a more personal relationship with the individual – a trusted confidant or even a relative. From a distance, what I frequently see is a person longing for clarity and knowing the real expectation from the leader. Because there is more of a relationship, I think the leader believes that stating their real expectation might cause the person to feel vulnerable. And typically, people who are more commanding by nature fear vulnerability. So, you guessed it, again, this benefits no one.

Be SMART When Communicating Expectations

Expectations typically fall into two broad categories: task-related/quantitative expectations and interpersonal/behavioral expectations. Both are critical to organizational success. How do you know if you are communicating clear expectations? Use the acronym many times used to establish goals: SMART.

S – SPECIFIC. Are you being really specific with what you expect? It’s not fair to be critical of someone (or even think critically of them) if you haven’t been as specific with your communication as what you truly expect.

M – MEASURABLE. Will the person know when they have succeeded (either quantitatively or behaviorally)? Have you painted a clear picture of success?

A – ACHIEVABLE. Have you communicated expectations that are both challenging and achievable?

R – RELEVANT. Have you communicated the why or the relevancy of your expectation? What is the outcome or result?

T – TIME. If you expect something completed or behavior changed, have you communicated within what timeframe? Did you communicate the timeframe in such a way that it sounds flexible or firm?

Communicating your true expectation is bold. Communicating your expectation clearly requires grace. Keep leading with bold grace.  

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