Raise expectations by talking, not by texts

I’m coaching a leader who feels he’s become a nag. His team is dispersed across the globe, but even those located in the same building rarely see him because of travel. A group of dedicated professionals, they are intent on doing good work. Still, he finds that deadlines are missed, and output doesn’t meet his quality standards. He doesn’t want to be a micro-manager – he hates that idea – but he’s at a loss for how to change it up. On group conference calls everyone seems to understand the strategy and their part in it. “When I can’t pull everyone into a room and do teambuilding,” he laments, “how do I get more of what’s needed?”

In coaching, we talked about his fear of nagging. His goal was to give real accountability to others, including asking them to self-manage their time and quality. He didn’t want to babysit anyone, but he was losing patience.

This leader is complicating a simple communication issue. When teams begin to rely on technology instead of dialogue, a lot can go awry. What feels like dialogue is really just rapid volleys of messages back-and-forth. This way of pushing out messages makes us great at advocacy (stating our point of view, our needs) and weakens our ability to inquire (question and listen, explore, reflect together). His group conference calls were tightly managed for efficiency, so while everyone had a change to speak, they seldom asked important questions or diverged from current issues.

The new habit, which he began to practice, and which spread across the team, was to create a “give and take” kind of dialogue about the work. It meant changing efficient demands to requests and waiting to hear back on confirmation of agreement. Together, he and the team decided to talk more openly and often about work challenges.

What organizational ground rules changed? Simple requests would continue to be made via remote communication channels. But always ending with, “please let me know if I’ve been clear and if this will work for you.” No more assuming that sent meant received. Asking others to agree – even if it was part of their job.

More complicated requests must be done voice-to-voice, phone, Skype or ideally in person. This is a non-confrontational dialogue. Both people are expected to unpack and explore the expectations and agreements. Questions are welcomed, and no one is made to feel stupid. The leader, aware of the power imbalance, took on the responsibility of keeping others safe, and started saying often: “What would enable you to deliver this?” and even more directly, “Please tell me if I am being unreasonable.”

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