Lumen Impact Group
Lumen Impact Group

As Clear As Mud: How to Share Expectations for Ground-Breaking Work

Published: February 3, 2020
image of muddy water

So, you’ve explained, you’ve re-explained, and you feel great about the expectations you’ve laid out.

“I was very clear!” You remind yourself.

Then, it’s results time, and you’re left confused, frustrated, maybe even angry because the work did not take on the path that you EXPRESSLY asked for. The path and result that you had pictured all along never happened the way you KNOW you communicated they should. Sound familiar?

I don’t know about you, but this is definitely a familiar scenario in my life. In fact, it has never been clearer to me than when dealing with my 16-year-old son and his disaster of a room.

Now, let me tell you that throughout my career and my life as a mom, I have rarely been given the feedback that I need to be more direct when I communicate. In fact, I have received the very opposite feedback on occasion. So, to say that I found myself confused when I set expectations for my son to clean his room only to find piles of clean clothes on the floor, stacks of “junk” on the dresser, shoes everywhere (don’t get me started on teens and their shoes), and his comforter and pillows on the floor would be an understatement.

On more than one occasion, this scenario has gone down, and each time, he would be sitting there on his phone looking accomplished; whereas, I would be steaming with frustration standing in the doorway.

So, what happened? How could we be so misaligned? Doesn’t everyone have the same vision for what a clean room looks like? Looking around my son’s room, it was clear that we did not have the same understanding of what it looked like even though I had “so clearly” communicated my desires for a clean room.

This led me to this obvious, but often missed conclusion: if the expectations are not shared, there is nothing clear about the communication.

But, how do we get to that shared expectation? In my experience, this four-step process has been the best tool to get there:

 Step 1: State the Expectation

What is it that you are hoping will be achieved? State it as clearly as you know how. 

 Step 2: Clarify the Expectation 

Once the expectation has been established, it is critical to ensure everyone is on the same page.  

Let’s go back to the aforementioned scenario with my son for example. There was obviously not clarity in the expectation because my definition of a clean room was not his definition of a clean room.

To get a shared expectation, I should have started by asking clarifying questions such as: “When I return to your room what will I see?” I needed to allow my son to share with me his vision of meeting the expectation to see if we shared the same vision.

I often refer to this process as adding color to the picture. In my head, I have a very clear image of the expectation; it’s vivid and colorful, but for us to have a shared expectation, I should have ensured that our pictures matched — or are a least closely resembled each other. By asking clarifying questions, I could have started to see where we shared alignment or where the misalignments were taking place.

Note: Clarifying expectations is NOT just parroting back the words of the expectation. If this happens when you ask, dig deeper. For example, if my son were to have answered the question about my return with “I will have cleaned my room,” I would need to ask something like: “Great, so what does clean look like to you?”

Step 3: Roadblocks to Success 

Before we launch into action, it is important to first address any “roadblocks” that might get in the way of success.  

By asking the simple question, “what could get in the way of meeting this expectation?” you open the opportunity to work through challenges that might arise. The goal here isn’t to completely remove all “roadblocks,” but to at least recognize them and ask what might be done to keep any of those issues from stopping progress.

 Step 4: Follow up  

Determining when and how progress towards the expectation will be measured and communicated. 

Now that you’ve set and clarified expectations and discussed barriers to success, the final step before action is to set a plan for follow up. Be specific.

Again, an example with my son and his room: as a last question, I could have asked, “how would you like us to check in on your progress?” It is important for all parties to own the follow up– even if we might have to do some negotiations and compromise on the timeline. If he’d come back and said, “why don’t we touch base on this next week Tuesday?” my response might be “I think we need to touch base on this before the end of the weekend.” In the end, we would develop a shared understanding of the follow up plan that we could both work with.

If you’ve ever found yourself standing in the muddy aftermath of your “oh, so clear expectations,” try these 4 steps out.

And remember, when we put new systems and processes in place, the transition is often a little bumpy. Good and bad habits take time to form and break, so with some persistence, eventually, you might find that instead of standing in mud, you and your team are standing on the summit of success looking out at clear skies.

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