Don’t Make Them Guess

by | Jun 28, 2024 | Leadership

Ellen Patnaude, Patnaude Coaching

Setting expectations for others is pretty foundational to leadership. And yet, most of us aren’t really taught how to do it properly. By “properly,” I mean to do it in a way that leaves both parties feeling confident. Instead, too often I hear murmurs in teams about how poorly this is done. When it comes to laying out clear expectations to another human, the rule of thumb is don’t make them guess.

Learning the hard way, of course.

Many years ago, I was a young (and somewhat overly confident) executive director of an organization. I hired my first administrative assistant. I had no idea how to work effectively with help. The young woman I hired didn’t have a lot of work experience. Neither of us knew how to set or clarify expectations. We didn’t even know that we should.

After more than a few miscommunications, I grew frustrated. One morning, after giving her a task to complete the previous day that I did not have in my inbox, I stormed into her office. 

“Where is that report that I asked you to create yesterday?” I demanded. (For the record, I’m not proud of my behavior, and I did apologize.) She stared at me, looking confused.

“I haven’t started on it yet,” she stammered. I threw my hands up in the air.

“But why not? I needed it for today!” (Again, not proud.)

She continued to stare at me, her gaze cooling now. “You didn’t say that,” she said quietly. “You didn’t say anything about when you needed it. I was working on the other tasks you gave me.”

Don’t be like me.

As I cringe remembering those interactions, let me offer you some questions you can use to help you avoid this situation. If you’re the one setting the expectations, you can use these questions to make sure you cover all the bases. If you’re on the receiving end of the expectations, you can use these questions to make sure you fully understand exactly what’s expected. 

  1. What? What do you want done?
  2. When? What’s the timeline associated with the task? When does it need to be completed? Is there a deadline for any first steps?
  3. Who? Who else is involved? Who can you go to for support?
  4. How? Is there a template? Is there a specific way the task should be done? Are there best practices, guidelines, or standards to follow?
  5. Why? Why does this matter? How does it fit into the bigger picture? How is this project or task adding value?

We often skip that “why” information. Either we think it doesn’t matter, or that the person receiving the task doesn’t need to know. But understanding how we fit into a larger organization, mission, goals, or benchmarks is what connects us to our own motivation. We want to know that what we’re doing matters. If your organization has high turnover, take a look at whether this question is ever being addressed.

Don’t skip this final step.

Finally, and most importantly, get agreement. You may think that someone should just do a task when assigned because it’s their job. While that may be true, it doesn’t demonstrate much respect for the other person’s human dignity. (See high turnover comment above.) It also helps you make sure you haven’t just overloaded the other person and they’re too afraid to speak up about it. 

Don’t make them guess. From your team members to your colleagues to your kids. Tell people what you want/need done, offer additional information and context, and ask them if they’re up for it. It’s not complicated and doesn’t cost a thing. But the payoff is immense.

Ellen Patnaude

Ellen Patnaude

Ellen E. Patnaude has been coaching, training, and developing people to achieve higher levels of success in a professional capacity since 1997.

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