Clarity & explicitness: a crash course in the most under-taught skills of leadership

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Many of us can relate to the idea of taking on a project only to find ourselves cast adrift, feeling our way through the dark, unsure of ourselves and the desirability of the path we’re heading down. A lack of clear and explicit
direction can leave us feeling insecure and demotivated, and result in dubious outcomes.

As managers then, we have a responsibility to direct our teams with clarity and explicitness, and yet these core leadership attributes are often underrated and rarely taught. 

In her webinar on this topic (a companion to our workbook ‘
Performance Management’), Kate Turner outlines the key considerations for communicating goals and objectives, designed for experienced and new managers alike.

Be clear and explicit with yourself about what clarity and explicitness means!

Before we get going let’s define what we mean by clear and explicit instruction. It’s about ensuring there is nothing left unsaid or implied in our communication to direct reports. The individual taking on a task must be in no doubt
about what is expected of them and what overall success looks like. If the project is very detailed or complicated you will need to break it down into digestible stages so that the recipient has a concrete mental picture of the
behaviours they’ll need to demonstrate along the way. It’s not just about the ‘what’ (grow website sales by 20%); it’s about the ‘how’ (in 5% increments each month for the next four months, with resources including the time of one IT
specialist, and by demonstrating behaviour that fits with the organisations’ values and culture).

Ask yourself: ‘What if I gave two or more people this instruction? Would they each produce the same result or might they be different?’

A good checkpoint is to examine the instruction you’re about to deliver to for any ambiguity. If you’re asking for a written report ‘as a matter of priority’, one individual might assume you intend for them to drop everything else and
get straight to work, another might set about getting you that report as soon as they possibly can alongside their existing commitments. Unambiguity is particularly important for new members of your team. ‘Good customer service’ to one
might mean answering the phone on the first ring, another might assume to call a customer by their first name. Take some time to look at your instruction and break it down so that any fluffy words or generalisations are removed, and the
two most diverse members of your team are left with the same set of impressions. If in doubt, ask them to repeat back their understanding of the task ahead.

Focus on changing behaviours, not people

As leaders, the behaviours and – to a lesser degree – the attitudes of individuals are really the only aspects we have influence over; core personalities and individuals’ values are rarely, if ever, within our control. When faced with
individual performance, however, leaders often make the mistake of focusing on character traits. Take the example, ‘I wish Sophie would take more initiative, but I can’t ask her to do that as she’s just not that type of person’. Rather
than focusing on Sophie’s lack of initiative from the point of view of her shy or reticent character, look at what behaviour she might be capable of demonstrating that would demonstrate initiative. Does Sophie wait to be told what to
do? Examine the root cause; perhaps Sophie needs to do work on her self-confidence or is simply unclear on her level of authority. If she’s the only team member who never volunteers for extra-curricular projects, how might she respond
if asked to step in to help out an overworked colleague?

Use the ‘less of this/more of this’ model

We’ve tackled Sophie’s lack of initiative by listing specific examples of her undesirable behaviour alongside concrete examples of how we’d prefer her to behave in future. This exercise can be useful preparation for an annual
performance review or a feedback session following the completion of a task. If the main sticking point with Sophie’s project was that she bluffed her way through a few of its stages, the ‘desired future behaviour’ might be for her to
approach a senior team member for guidance when needed. If her stakeholders were left in the dark, her ‘desired future behaviour’ might be to communicate weekly status updates to the team. It’s important to note that these lists of
behaviours shouldn’t be treated as ‘teach sheets’ and given to individuals to work through in isolation; they’re guide points from which you can deliver meaningful feedback drawing on useful examples.

Understand when to become less directional

A concern of leaders on the receiving end of much of the above advice is that being clear and explicit can easily cross over into micromanagement. This is a valid concern and one managers are right to be mindful of. Take a common sense
approach to giving instruction; if it’s coming from a place of good intention of setting someone up for success, it will generally be perceived as such; a different emphasis on your words might leave an individual feeling patronised,
depending on your existing relationship with them. A developing employee will often appreciate clear direction, while a trusted, long-time direct report might benefit from a less hands-on approach. In either case, well-delivered
feedback via regular catch-ups can ensure you catch misinterpretations before they become detrimental to success.

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