The impact of both good and bad communication in the workplace is noteworthy:

  • The U.S. Joint Commission for Hospital Accreditation reported, “Communications failures are the leading causes of inadvertent patient harm,” being the primary reason in over 70% of cases.
  • Slaw, a Canadian on-line legal publication, reports that 40% of malpractice claims against real estate agents involve communication errors with the client.
  • In a survey conducted by the Computing Technology Industry Association, 28% of respondents cited poor communication as the main cause of failure for IT projects.
  • An ROI study by Watson Wyatt found that companies with the most effective communications programs provided a 26% total return to shareholders (TRS) compared with a -15% TRS for firms that communicate least effectively.

In May, I wrote about one half of effective communication, listening. The other half of effective communication is conveying specific expectations. I am amazed at how often leaders do not set this basic foundation for direction and accountability within their organizations.

The simplest form of setting expectations is making a clear request. In Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, Chalmers Brothers defines five components of a clear request:

  • Is communicated to a specific person
  • Provides a quantified deadline
  • Defines the goal to be accomplished
  • Establishes a common context
  • Describes a satisfactory outcome

I present this as part of a class I teach on management and leadership skills. A common response I get is, “Providing this much detail sounds like micro-managing, and I don’t want to do that.” What I point out in return is that micro-management is one extreme of the spectrum, of providing too much direction to the employee, and stifling and annoying them. But the other end of that spectrum is not giving employees enough guidance. In that case, we are setting our employees up for frustration, or even failure, because they will not know our expectations. The goal is to find the happy medium between the two.

The first point I offer is to distinguish between the “what” of a task and the “how” of a task. With respect to the components of a clear request, “what” means defining the goal to be accomplished and describing a satisfactory outcome. “How” is the specific steps to take to get there. It is your job as a leader to provide the “what”; let your employees decide the “how.”

The second point relates to establishing a common context. Brothers notes that between speaker and listener, some things are always considered obvious. For example, if I ask you to get me a glass of water, the assumption is that the water is from a clean, potable source, not from the puddle in the yard nor from the toilet. So we are able to come to some mutual understanding without discussion. Then there are particulars that need to be negotiated. Does it need to be in a disposable cup so that I can take it with me? Do I prefer bottled water? Do I want ice in it?

Misunderstandings arise in the gray area between what is “obvious” vs. “negotiated.” What is obvious to me may not be obvious to you. As we build a history together over time and increase our common knowledge and shared experiences, the amount that is obvious between us increases. But with that increased familiarity also comes the possibility that we skip over explanation when guidance is needed. So even in established relationships, remain open to the possibility that you could inadvertently be interpreted in a way that is different than what you intended, and ensure your expectations are clear.

Communication has a huge impact on an organization, for better or worse. As a leader, it is your job to provide sufficient guidance for your employees so they can be successful, for their own gratification and for the good of your organization. Check in with yourself on the basics of clear requests to determine if the guidance you provide is giving your employees the direction they need.

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