When I first became a manager of people many years ago, I was faced with the challenge of leading people that were once my peers. And some of my team members were older than me by several years, with more experience in the company than me. I remember feeling uncertain in my new role. “Who am I to think I can lead this team, when many of my team members are just as experienced as me, and some of them much more.” My confidence was not at full peak as I started the role.
I did what I now see many other leaders doing in this situation. I went into my role with a hands-off approach with my team and the mindset that they know what to do in their roles and I better give them space. I assumed they knew what was expected of them and that there was really no need for expectation-setting. One of my peer managers warned me, “Don’t micro-manage – they’ll never follow you if you do.” With that warning in mind, I didn’t want to rock the boat or create any dissatisfaction with my team members by getting too much into the weeds. Afterall, giving them space and not discussing their job expectations would show them that I trusted them, right?
So, with the stern “don’t micro-manage” warning in mind, I gave my team members a lot of space. I thought for sure this approach would be welcomed by my team. “They know what to do, so I just need to stay out of their way.” That was my thinking at the time.
I learned, fairly quickly that this approach wasn’t helpful to my team, nor was it helpful to my success in my leadership role. And being hands off, assuming they knew what was expected did the opposite of building trust. As a result, these are some of the lessons that I learned early on, that I carried with me through the many years of leadership roles that followed.
I assumed that my team members understood what was expected. Come to find out, the prior manager hadn’t made expectations very clear and, low and behold, I actually needed to help correct some team members’ performances. I have observed with many leaders I’ve worked with over the years that they assume that many of their expectations are simply “common sense” and don’t need to be explicitly stated. I learned the hard way that what is considered common sense can vary among individuals.
There’s a difference between the What and the How. Leaders not only have the responsibility of expressing expectations, but it’s actually the first act of leadership. I learned how important it is to be explicit about the “What:” what results are expected and what good looks like. Then leaving room for the “How”. I figured out, through conversations with my team members, that they not only needed the clarity, but they wanted the clarity. And it was in the “HOW” to achieve them that they felt they wanted the room.
I assumed (there’s that dreaded word again) that by expressing explicit expectations, I’d get push back that would lead to conflict. I thought that because they were experienced professionals, if I expressed expectations they’d be offended, and it would create tough conversations. As it turns out, had I expressed expectations more explicitly early on, I would have avoided the conflicts that occurred later. At Conversant, we often say, address performance at “Point Easy.” Meaning, have a discussion before things veer off track. I waited until “point difficult,” when performance had to be corrected, which made things harder for my team and me in the end.
Without clear expectations, team members can feel unsupported and uncertain. Aligning on priorities and what success looks like ensures that a team is all rowing in the same direction. If we come in after the fact, needing to correct performance, it can break down trust. In my situation with my first manager role, one team member said to me, “We could have saved a lot of frustration for us both if we’d just taken the time sooner to talk this all through.” He was right, and I learned!
This is a belief that is deeply held at Conversant. And one that I learned to be true in that first manager role years ago. Setting expectations is best done in a conversation, especially when building new relationships or evolving roles. I learned that it is critical to think of expectations setting as a collaboration with my team members. Yes, it’s the job of the leader to be clear and explicit about what’s expected. It’s just as critical that leaders create the environment where team members feel safe to ask any questions and share their perspective about expectations. The conversation is particularly essential to defining what success looks like. As a leader of many teams, I learned over time that listening to my team members’ perspective about what good looks like helps us to align and ensure we are together in the outcome.
As my leadership responsibilities increased over the years, it became harder at times to remember to check my assumptions at the door. As a senior leader or executive, the stakes are higher and pressure for results increases. As a leader of leaders, the “they should just know” mindset is an easy trap to fall into. In a recent coaching conversation I had with a senior VP of a large technology organization, he had the realization that his frustration with one of his direct report leaders was likely due to unexpressed expectations. In our conversation, he found himself saying that his team member “should” know this, and “should” be doing that. He became clear that his “shoulds” hadn’t actually been expressed and, simply put, it was time for a conversation!
So, I leave you with this to ponder. When was a time that your unexpressed expectations or assumptions might have caused you and your team undue stress? If you’re experiencing this right now, then my question for you is, what conversation is it time for? What’s in the way of you making your expectations explicit? Speaking from experience, your team members will appreciate the clarity.