Clear Conversations that Get Results

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

When you don’t have clear conversations with employees, work performance declines. Many people tend to just give in to the stress of poor performance and complain that “people don’t work the way they used to.”  Part of the problem here is that team members don’t know what is expected of them—and often do not get this clarification in conversations by receiving expectations.

Why is it So Difficult?

Fear of confrontation has something to do with it; so does a lack of trust and accountability. People need and want clear, direct, and honest communication of what right looks like; that is, they need to know what is expected of them in order to do their jobs well.

How would you deal with the following situation?

Tom, a member of the project team, is an average performer. His skills are not outstanding, but they are not poor. Recently, he’s started arriving late for the team meetings that are held every Wednesday.

Although he usually doesn’t contribute much, his tardiness still affects the team. What would you do if you were Tom’s project manager?

  • Lay it on the line, and simply remind him that the meetings start promptly at 8:00 a.m.
  • Change the meeting time to 8:30 a.m.
  • When talking to Tom about other matters, mention to him that he needs to be more punctual.
  • Compliment him when he does arrive close to the correct time.

If you’ve been operating in a reactive environment for a while, you may think that one or more of those options are acceptable. However, a person with solid leadership skills knows that none of these options will work long-term.

A Solution that Lasts

The only effective solution to Tom’s tardiness problem and average performance is to clarify the expectations you have for him by having positive, clear conversations and candidly letting him know what you expect of him, starting today.

You could begin by saying to him, “Tom, starting today, there are three expectations that need to be in place,” and then list them specifically for him. For example:

  1. Be on time for all future 8:00 a.m. project meetings. Your punctuality is critical to the value of these meetings.
  2. This week, meet with each member of the project team to find out how you can expedite the team’s success. Find out from them what they expect and need from you in order to be a “real team.”
  3. Follow up with me next Friday with your top five actions for improving your performance with the project team based on the feedback you received from your team members.

These expectations may sound obvious. However, they are rarely outwardly spoken about by a reactive manager. Typically, a reactive manager just stays frustrated with Tom.

What About Jane?

Let’s look at another example: Suppose you have a presentation for a new customer due. You’ve had two weeks to complete it, and Jane, who is in charge of designing it, said it would be ready by Friday. That day comes and goes; on Monday, Jane can’t be reached, and everybody’s waiting.

This unproductive behavior has become a pattern with Jane and a problem for the entire team. Other employees become frustrated when they have to rush to complete their work at the last minute; quality also suffers because what could have been well done with the right amount of time ends up being mediocre. What do you do now?

Clear Conversations

When you meet with team members who have dropped the ball to clarify what is expected of them, the clear conversations should go something like this:

  • First, say, “Starting today, this is what I/we expect from you.”
  • Second, note that all assignments must be completed by the agreed-upon deadline.
  • Third, let Jane know that if an unexpected circumstance that may affect production arises, she must contact all other involved team members ahead of time so that the deadline can still be met.
  • Fourth, tell Jane that she has to take responsibility for her own workload by prioritizing projects or commitments and setting up work schedules that will allow her to meet deadlines. This involves being realistic about what she can accomplish before agreeing to a completion date.
  • Last, explain to Jane that she must take the initiative to ask questions of every team member involved when changes arise rather than trying to tackle the problem by herself. She works as a team member, not alone, and she must remember and respect that.

Expectations = Requirements

After you have clarified all these expectations (if you are Jane’s manager), remind Jane that these are not just expectations—they are requirements. Say, “Jane, these are not choices. They need to be implemented immediately. If you cannot fulfill these expectations, what do you think the next step should be?”

Asking this question will allow you to gauge your employees’ commitment and ownership to meeting the expectations. When expectations are spelled out clearly, people can decide whether or not their goals and those of the organization are a match and what to do if this is the case.

In our client companies, it’s very rare for a manager to have to terminate an employee or even to engage in the first step of progressive discipline. Those who cannot adhere to clear expectations simply choose to “weed” themselves out.

This approach is honest and specific. It tells your team members what right looks like and represents a very important tool because, quite often, employees are not told exactly what is expected of them.

In fact, when you have clear conversations with employees, and they hear specifically what you want from them, it often feels like a breakthrough for team members who have never really been addressed with such clarity. The results are fantastic!

How Do Your Conversations Get Results?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Creating clarity with statements like that is wonderful for bringing about common understanding even in instances where we think it should already be understood. These two examples seem like situations where motivation is missing. I would also consider helping them understand what their success means, in terms of their contributions, their actions, and their teammates, which would address their omissions in an indirect positive way.

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