The soul of management is communication. When it’s going right, you feel like the coach in Friday Night Lights, helping your team win games and become better people. But when it’s going wrong, you feel like the boss in Amelia Bedelia, the children’s book series about a maid with a knack for misinterpreting instructions. (Ask her to draw the curtains, and she’ll give you a charcoal sketch of the drapes. Ask her to string the beans, and she’ll hang them from the walls like Christmas lights, much to the consternation of her employers.)
But here’s the thing: if your team members frequently turn in work that makes you say “that’s not what I meant at all,” it’s probably not because they’re IRL Amelia Bedelias. Instead, it’s because you didn’t effectively communicate your expectations. At the end of the day, the responsibility for being a better communicator lies with you, the manager.
Effective communication is vital to keeping the quality of your team’s work high and keeping tensions low, but it doesn’t come naturally to every manager. In fact, an Interact survey found that 69% of managers report being uncomfortable communicating with employees. And when employees aren’t sure of what they’re supposed to be doing, they’re at risk of disengaging or quitting altogether. A Bamboo HR survey found that 23% of respondents who left their jobs shortly after starting wanted “to receive clear guidelines to what responsibilities were.”
In order to get the results you’re looking for from your team, you have to approach employee interactions with more patience and fewer assumptions. Here, we’ll go over some of the building blocks of effective communication and how you can apply them to get a happy, productive team, and zero green beans on the wall.
Communicate Expectations by Asking Questions
You probably already know that when you’re assigning a project (especially if it’s complex or unfamiliar work), you can’t just breeze through the instructions in five minutes and expect your employee to retain much of what you said. Really aligning on expectations requires asking your direct report questions, so they’re actively participating in forming a plan.
Of course, some questions are more helpful than others in making sure your employee knows what you need. If you just ask your employee, “do you understand the expectations,” they’ll probably say, “yes,” whether it’s true or not. That’s understandable from their perspective—they don’t want to seem incompetent in front of the boss—but it leads to frustration down the road when they say they’re lost, and you say, “but I thought you said you understood?!”
To really get a sense of how well an employee is prepared for their work, you have to ask richer questions that force them to think through their process. Try asking the following questions:
“If you had four hours to devote exclusively to this project, what would you do?” This question is extremely useful for an employee to hit the ground running with a task and identify potential roadblocks. An employee might be excited about an idea but have no idea where to start, and you can help them figure it out in the moment.
“Describe what success on this looks like.” If the previous question helps put your team member on the right path, this one makes sure they’re headed toward the right destination. Answering this question forces an employee to get clarity not just on what they’re doing, but also why it’s important.
“Who will you ask/what resources will you seek out if you get stuck?” Projects often get off track when employees hit a snag and don’t know how to get out of it. They can try to come up with their own solution and end up making a mistake, or spend valuable time trying to re-invent the wheel instead of just admitting they need help. Get ahead of those issues by reminding your employees that help is available, if and when they need it.
Find Communication Tools that Work for Your Style
Every manager has their own communication style, and every employee learns differently. That means you need to have a variety of tools at your disposal that plays to your skills as a communicator and their needs as a listener.
Follow up and provide resources: As we said above, when you’re asking a team member to take on a new task, you can’t expect a single conversation or email to tell them all they need to know. When you have a sense of their needs, follow up with resources (training materials, research, experts on the subject matter) they can refer to later. If you’re explaining a complex subject, you can also record or transcribe the conversation. (Recording instructions can also help train future employees, so you don’t get burnt out from explaining the same concepts again and again.)
“Paint me a picture”: Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried has written about “the illusion of agreement,” the phenomenon in which a manager and employee think they’re aligned but are imagining completely different things. He suggests drawing a physical sketch of what a final product will look like, so everyone is on the same page from the idea stage onward.
Act it out: If your work doesn’t lend itself to drawing the product, you can still create a physical representation of your expectations. You can even use it as an excuse to play with toys! The Washington Post recently reported on Playmobil Pro, a set of figurines designed to help employees “find new business solutions” and “bring theoretical discussions to life.”
Communicate Better by Understanding Power Dynamics
Unless you’re managing a team of ravenous orcs or flying monkeys, you probably don’t think of yourself as a very intimidating person. But to your reports, you’re the boss, the person who controls their professional future, and that can make them too nervous to ask for the help they need. Furthermore, your expertise can be intimidating; when you’ve been doing the same work for years, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a beginner. You can never completely erase the power imbalance between yourself and your team, but you can facilitate rich communication in spite of it.
For starters, you should have these expectation-setting conversations during one-on-one meetings, not in front of the whole team. Connecting in that setting ensures that employees have your full attention (and vice versa), and aren’t worried about looking bad in front of other team members.
When you ask an employee to walk you through their process, don’t get frustrated if they admit they don’t know what to do. In fact, thank them for their honesty! If you treat these interactions like a test, you just make employees more likely not to share when they’re having problems. Remember, you’re there to remove roadblocks, not make your employees feel bad.
Finally, while you and your team members need to be aligned, you shouldn’t try and make them march in lock-step with you. Allow for collaboration and accept that an employee will never do something in exactly the same way you would. It’s better to be flexible when you can and allow an employee to creatively problem-solve than to be rigid and have them be less than fully engaged with the work.
It’s Worth the Effort to Make Yourself Understood
Aligning with your employees about expectations takes thought, care, and persistence. But the time you put into communicating effectively is an investment, not just in ensuring that work is done right, but in building healthy relationships with your team.