The Art of Communicating Employee Expectations

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May 23, 2014

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright.

In general, people like to talk more than they like to listen. This causes enough problems in the normal course of human affairs, but in the workplace, poor communication can result in a loss of time and money.

Consider this minor example: A technical writer explains to his editor that the client wants to use an archaic spelling for a specific word on a report’s cover. Nevertheless, she changes it to the accepted modern spelling.

Blame on both sides

The report goes to the printer, and 400 copies come back perfect bound. The client rejects the report because of the spelling of that one word, and the company that prepared the report not only has to deal with the embarrassment, but with the added cost of reprinting the documents.

Who deserves the most blame here? The editor, for not listening. She should have clarified, repeating back to the writer what she thought she heard him say.

AND the writer, for not making his point more clearly. He should have followed up with the editor, in writing as well as verbally, instead of assuming she had listened to and understood his instructions.

3 rules for setting clear expectations

As a leader, you can’t afford to have your words misinterpreted, or your organization can suffer negative consequences, fiscal or otherwise. To ensure your team members do the work correctly the first time, you must communicate your expectations clearly and concisely.

How? Follow these three rules:

  1. Repeatedly communicate your expectations. Repeat your goals until you’re blue in the face. Keep your mission in front of your folks. You don’t always have to do this verbally or in writing; your own actions can serve as an example. If you need your people to work longer hours to meet a sales quota or push through a rough patch, arrive early and leave late yourself. Meanwhile, express confidence in their abilities, and support them in every way you can. Modern leaders are visionaries and facilitators, with lucid vision who can make their goals well-known and clear to all.
  2. Triple check for understanding. This becomes especially important when you can’t reverse an action; this is why medical teams that prep surgeries mark very clearly the body part to be removed, and why building demolishers repeatedly check the address of the building they’re suppose to take down. Sadly, both types of operations have gone appallingly wrong in the past. For example, in 2013, one City of Fort Worth, Texas demolition crew demolished the wrong houses two days in a row. Apparently their code enforcement officer failed in both communications. Oops.
  3. Meet people where they are. Try to take individual communication styles in mind. Some people understand your needs better when you express them verbally; others do better with written instructions. I recommend both. New initiatives, for example, deserve team meetings, followed up by emailed summaries. If you head up a larger group, you probably won’t be able to take everyone’s background and capabilities into account, but even so, make sure your managers know what you need and can communicate it effectively.

The bottom line

Effective communication is more art than a science, but either way, it requires practice, diligence, and follow-up.

Trust your team members to do their jobs right, but make sure they understand what they should do and why. Otherwise, you might figuratively demolish the wrong house in your organization, and then you’ll have some serious explaining to do.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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