Do you ever take time to reflect on what the ideal workplace would look like?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a large number of leaders who wanted to focus on the topic of engagement. I started our time together by asking them to write — in pictures, words, sentences or bullet points — what their team would look like if all of its members were highly engaged.
This exercise was a struggle for most of the leaders. At first, many shared, they wanted to write what they had been told a highly engaged team looked like. Most of them stopped themselves, though, because regurgitating didn’t feel genuine, and it didn’t match what they wanted for their team.
The exercise took a little longer than I’d expected, but we made genuine progress. Many leaders shared that they spent a lot of time talking about engagement right before and right after an annual engagement survey but that they really didn’t spend time reflecting. After they went through the exercise, each leader spent time thinking about the feedback they received from their team members, the questions they regularly asked them, and how those two things connected with what they put on paper.
Two common pieces came through as overwhelming themes, and those themes have come up in a lot of organizations I’ve worked with. They were the need for clearer expectations and the desire for more timely feedback.
1. Strengthen Expectations
People want to know what is expected of them. It is part of their measuring process: Am I doing what I need to be doing? Is the outcome what it is supposed to be? Is it what the organization was hoping for?
Engaged team members ask themselves these questions, because they care about their work and how it impacts their team and organization. When their leader hasn’t clarified expectations, it leaves them feeling uncertain, unsure and, often, unfulfilled.
A lack of clear expectations also creates an environment where accountability is hard to see. Expectations not only provide markers that helped engaged team members look for opportunities to grow, embrace those opportunities and talk about them to each other. Clear expectations also provide the opportunity for others to step into accountability. If expectations are clear, it is easy for one team member to address a deficiency or celebrate a success with another team member.
How are you ensuring expectations are clear on your team? How do you create a shared process with your team members for doing so? Is there a clearly discussed, approachable next step if expectations aren’t clear? Is communication flexible enough to connect with all types of communicators?
Leaders have the ability to set the stage for expectations by asking the right questions and inviting team members to join them on the stage to produce and partner on the experience together.
2. Make “Candor Conversations” a Cultural Norm
Have you ever had a team member say, “That’s great feedback! I wish you had shared it with me sooner”?
I have both said something similar and had it said to me. I’ve also connected frequently over the years with leaders who were nervous to have an important conversation with someone on their team. When I ask them why they are nervous, the most common response is, “It’s going to be a tough conversation. This person probably won’t like what I have to share, but this issue has been going on long enough.”
I then ask how long the problem has been occurring, in an effort to seek to understand and help. Most leaders say it’s been going on between six and 18 months and add that if they had addressed it when it started, it would have been a smaller issue to address. Why do so many leaders wait to have a conversation to close a gap or address a performance deficiency?
To interrupt this cycle, leaders can introduce “candor conversations” to your team: Bring an issue forward with a direct and positive intent, withhold judgement, stick to the facts, and work toward connection.
This process sounds great, but, these types of conversations take work, and practice is required in order to be comfortable having them. Leaders must start by trying — and understanding that it may not go perfectly, and it’s about progress. They are providing the opportunity for team members to trust that they will hear about something in a timely manner and with a helpful intention. As leaders continue to model candor conversations, they open the door for others on the team to practice the same type of communication. The process helps trust to grow and develop firm roots within the team.
All leaders have the opportunity to evaluate how they set expectations and have candor conversations. They have the ability to talk with their team about what’s working well and where there are opportunities for improvement. These conversations may be difficult at first, but as they happen more consistently, they will build trust and create new ways for team members to become more engaged.