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It was clear my client was frustrated.
It was budget time and the first roll-up for the functional areas she oversaw was due in just five days. Despite their repeated assurances that they would, only one of her four managers had turned in their numbers the week prior as agreed, thus allowing her to complete the full report that she would later present to the firm’s executive committee.
The pressure she was feeling was palpable.
To meet the looming deadline, she knew she needed to light a fire and fast. To salvage any semblance of peace of mind, she needed a different kind of assurance from her managers. She needed to know she had their full attention in order to meet the deadline. She also needed to know that each person understood that missing deadlines with no communication why was not okay—ever. So, she called a team meeting.
As she explained her concern and reminded everyone of the agreement the team made regarding the deadlines, she was beyond baffled by the team’s ambivalent response—in particular the response from the three managers who missed the deadline who were building their case right before her eyes and she could hardly believe what she was hearing:
- “I didn’t understand the assignment.”
- “What you were asking didn’t make sense, so I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do…”
- “Oh, that wasn’t clear to me…”
- “I guess I was confused. Sorry about that…”
As a leader, you have likely experienced similar situations where you stated your expectations and gave room for questions. When none were asked, you assumed everyone was clear and had what they needed to get moving and follow through on their deliverables. Days pass. No questions. Reminders are sent. Still no questions. The deadline comes and, incredibly, there’s nothing to show for it. It’s clear there’s a problem—in fact the problem likely started on day one during the meeting when you had the original conversation and gave the assignment.
Confusion is an easy choice to make. When leaders don’t nip confusion in the bud, it can slip into a predictable pattern that negatively impacts the performance of an organization—and undermine the credibility of its leader.
Claims of confusion do not justify a missed deadline or a broken agreement. It’s fair and right for leaders to ask their team members to take responsibility for their own clarity. When something isn’t clear, professionals don’t make their confusion someone else’s problem. They make clarity a priority because they are committed to doing their jobs to the best of their ability and following through on their commitments. This means walking out of a meeting unclear on what has been asked of them isn’t an option.
If you’re seeing a pattern of confusion in your organization or perhaps with a particular individual on your team, consider the following points to help address it and, as important, set the stage for greater accountability and team morale:
Asking if everyone is clear isn’t enough.
I have many clients to lament, “I asked if everyone was clear and they said they were…” Instead of asking if people are clear, a better question to ask is this: “What’s clear and what’s not clear?” For those who show a pattern of being confused, posing the question in this way will make it hard for them to choose confusion over clarity. It will also allow you the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings you may have unintentionally created.
Sharing why the assignment is important increases the desire to perform.
Context gives confusion a run for its money. By sharing what’s at stake or how the assignment fits into the bigger picture sets the stage for your team to do its best work. Everyone wants to be part of something big and important. They want to know their contribution will make a difference. When your team can see how their work individually and collectively matters, confusion isn’t an option.
Setting time for progress checks helps to avoid surprises.
Depending on the nature of the assignment and its complexity, agree on incremental check-ins to make sure things are on track and you’re able to clear any barriers anyone may be experiencing—and provide any clarifications that might be needed. This step will also allow you to better understand each individual’s thought process as they complete their work and, in turn, provide valuable developmental coaching in the moment. It will also protect against the possibility of a missed deadline.
Make it safe for people to ask questions without feeling judged.
We all want to look good. No one wants to look bad or feel stupid in front of their peers, much less their boss. You can help team members risk their personal vulnerability by asking questions they might be wondering about and then answering them. This shows that you’re in it with them as their leader and that you’re attuned to their potential concerns. It also sends the clear message that it’s safe to come to you if, in fact, there is something they don’t understand or need more clarity on in order to get moving. Chances are, by going first with your own hypothetical questions, you’ll draw back many more that your team was waiting to ask. This approach will help to further douse any likelihood for confusion as work gets underway.
If you notice a pattern of confusion beginning to take hold, make it a priority to get to the bottom of it. And, as you take steps to understand what’s causing it, be mindful that clarity is a two-way street: You have a responsibility to be clear and your team members have a responsibility to get clear.
It’s okay to be wrong as a leader. It’s not okay to be confusing. Likewise, it’s okay to hold people accountable to seek out the clarity they need to do their jobs. It’s not okay to let team members get into the habit of using confusion as justification for missed deadlines or poor performance.
July 9, 2019 at 06:32PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs