Leaders, Describe What You Mean

October brings us into the last quarter of the year, and after summer holidays this can feel like the homestretch for meeting annual objectives. (A nod to those whose year-end performance cycle ends not with the calendar year). Now is a good time to have conversations with your staff about their performance objectives and progress so far.

As you prepare to do this, I invite you to think in terms of how clear you have been. Pull out your documentation (I assume you are writing objectives…if you’re not, you can start now!) The best workplace objectives describe the outcomes, rather than merely listing tasks. Each person should be held accountable for no more than five outcomes, regardless of how many tasks they do to get there.

Clearly explain how you will be measuring success, and then check in to see how it’s going. A simple “Do you feel on-track to meet your objectives?” is a good open-ended question. Often staff will begin to list everything they are doing. Being busy and talking about it feels good and will satisfy some employers. Your role is to stop distractions and provide course correction. You may want to sum up their litany with a focussed statement: “As long as all that work you are doing results in (state outcome here) then I’m glad to hear about it.”
Even more directly: “And are you confident that all these things you are doing will give you (result stated here)?”

A September check-in is also good time to deal with behavioural issues, especially those that are expending energy at the expense of outcomes. I have found that many leaders are clear when it comes to discussing outcomes, but they get very vague when the subject is behaviour. This might be because we get nervous when pointing out other people’s behaviour. (Remember your Mom telling you it was rude to notice or point out what others were doing?)

Don’t be esoteric. Be clear. Recently a rugby coach was giving feedback to a young adult player. “You need to be setting the pace more,” said the coach. “So that your opponent matches you and you aren’t forced to take a stance based on what they are doing.” That sounds very smart, doesn’t it! It’s also unclear. A similar business statement would be “You need to be more proactive, not reactive.” Sounds smart. It’s also extremely theoretical and unclear.

The young rugby player took it on the chin. She looked at the Coach and said boldly (like only the youth seem able to do) “I want to improve and be a better player. Tell me what to do differently, and I’ll do it.” She was letting the coach know that he knew what he meant – but she did not. Irritated, he said, “We talked about it at practice.” Yes, she persisted. “But I need you to show me what you mean.” How wise and bold of her. Instead of guessing what the Coach meant, she said, “Show me”.

A leader was interested in driving much needed cultural change in their organization. She had many stimulating discussions about it, and had many pretty words to describe to HR the new culture she wanted to build. Words like “dynamic, engaging, innovative and leading-edge.” Although she talked and talked about the change, not much was happening. I finally asked her the question that enabled her to mobilize her team: “What do you want people to do differently?” Once she could articulate five behaviours that she expected to see, her team was able to understand what they could do to execute the change.

What do you need to show your employees? How to act in a meeting? How to speak to a customer? How to influence someone two layers up? How to calm an irate peer? How to share a new idea? How to criticize more gently? Whatever behavioural quirks are getting in the way of their success, tell them now. Don’t be mysterious about it. Show them what to do differently. Coaches can’t always sit on the sidelines – sometimes they have to get in there and demonstrate how it’s done.

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