Communication is a critical element to good leadership, but it’s also one of the more difficult things to execute well. Unfortunately, leaders and subordinates often assume too much or are reluctant to ask for clarification for fear of appearing unintelligent or whiny. Making sure your people know what you want without being condescending or a micro-manager is a pretty tough task and can be very frustrating for both sides. The best way to handle a situation is to set up an environment that is conducive to success.
As an example, let’s look at Dave, a good friend of mine who was struggling with a situation at his law firm. Each evening, his firm is required to submit signed correspondence/contracts to their customers, and Dave is the only person who can legally sign the material. Throughout the day, his employees researched legal precedent, collated the decisions, and prepared them for the boss’s signature. The employees would then drop the packages off for Dave to sign. However, it was usually at the end of their workday, which caused Dave to stay late each evening reviewing and signing the packages.
Dave was upset by his employee’s late work, and as the weeks went by his frustration grew. Dave’s employees thought they were meeting his expectations by completing their work that day. They didn’t understand the predicament they put Dave in by leaving their material with him at such a late hour. Dave’s frustration with the situation, not his people, prevented him from looking at the problem logically without the emotion. Both parties felt like they clearly understood the situation and didn’t see it from the other’s point of view.
By the time Dave confided in me, his frustration had grown into resentment. He was working out in his head how he was going to demote his employees for lack of work ethic. What Dave didn’t realize was that he had not set his expectations clearly. Worse, his increasing displeasure with the late-night package drop off was spilling over to other parts of his business especially his relationship with his employees.
Instead of coming at this issue from a disciplinary standpoint, I suggested another strategy. I told him to set the environment for his employees to be successful. First, he should explain the situation to his employees, so they understand what is happening and to whom. Second, he should change the rules. We decided that he would inform them that going forward they could drop their packages off at any time throughout the day, but they had to stay in the office until Dave had reviewed and signed them. Very quickly, Dave’s employees began adjusting their schedules, so they didn’t have to stay late, which meant Dave didn’t have to stay late either.
This type of workplace issue is more common than you think. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day minutia, which allows bad things to stack up towards the bursting point. The key to preventing this type of situation is to communicate clearly and frequently. Make people understand what is expected of them, but also why it’s required or important. Don’t assume, and never be scared to ask for clarification.