If a team member falls short or doesn’t complete their work on time, who is at fault? The immediate, even obvious, answer is the underperforming employee. If they were told what to do and by when, they are responsible for executing their assigned tasks — and are at fault when that task falls through the cracks.
Or at least, that’s the (mistaken) assumption. Too often, inexperienced leaders establish objectives and expect results without considering whether misunderstandings, inefficiencies, or workplace barriers may be keeping employees from achieving their expected results. If there is such a snag in the assignment, leaders may inadvertently judge their team members too harshly and blame them for poor performance rather than identifying and resolving underlying problems.
A lack of clarity can be frustrating for supervisors and devastating to team achievement. Research published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that this lack of clarity and poor leader understanding can have a pervasive and negative impact on company performance. The study’s leaders found that companies typically deliver just 63 percent of the financial performance their strategies should produce. They also note that the causes of the subpar achievement are often “all but invisible” to company leadership.
“Leaders then pull the wrong levers in their attempts to turn around performance—pressing for better execution when they actually need a better strategy, or opting to change direction when they really should focus the organization on execution,” the researchers write. “The result: wasted energy, lost time, and continued underperformance.”
What does this tell us? It demonstrates that in practice, dictating expectations via a short, dictatorial conversation doesn’t work in the long run. To be effective, leaders must view objective-setting as a two-way process and structure their approach along more conversational lines. Doing so allows leaders to empower their employees to high achievement and when performed on an organization-wide scale, bring every level of a business into alignment.
It may be useful to clarify at this point what, precisely, the term alignment means. When a business achieves alignment, every employee, team, and manager understand their purpose within the organization and actively works to further its goals. Every strategy, management system, and communication memo is organized around a set purpose.
As Oxford University management researchers Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe explained in a 2017 article on the matter, “Strategically aligned enterprises are made capable by their organizational resources, including people, structures, cultures, and work processes, and by the degree to which they are configured to be strategically valuable.”
People, the pair go on to describe, have the skills and experience required to perform the organization’s work. A business’s structure organizes that talent within a framework of formal relationships, networks, and connections; then, processes ensure that employees can execute their work via consistent routines and at an established quality. Lastly, culture encompasses the values that drive everyday behavior and link employees together within an organization.
If any of these factors — the “cogs,” so to speak — are misaligned, the performance of the overall “machine” will begin to decline. This idea holds for both massive organizations and the smaller teams working within them. One survey conducted in 2011 by Fierce Inc reported that over 97 percent of business respondents believed that a lack of alignment would directly impact the outcome of a given project or task. Of those, 86 percent blamed workplace failures on a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication.
Business leaders at all levels need to take a more reflective, coaching-centered approach to underperformance. Rather than casting blame for lackluster results or attempting to engineer a new strategy without understanding the misalignments that caused the previous one to fail, leaders should take an analytical and patient approach. Start a conversation with your team members; ask questions about the barriers they faced and how they feel they performed. Their answers may be more illustrative than you think.
Remember, this process will likely take time, and achieving alignment won’t happen overnight. As training expert Natalie Brown recently put the matter for Forbes, “In order to get to the exact required behavior or performance, a person needs to go through a number of little changes in behavior to reach the desired outcome. If we wait for a person to get to this state in one go, then we may be waiting a long time.”
At Tyden, we developed a specific process to establish objectives and guide employees into alignment. Each step in our protocol was designed with two primary goals in mind. First, every step would foster productive conversation between leaders and their employees. Second, all resulting discussions would improve an employee’s understanding of what their objective is and why they need to achieve it. Below, I’ve listed a few of the steps.
Establish Firm Outputs
Once you establish outputs — i.e., the results a team member is expected to achieve — creating measurable objectives will be relatively easy. These outputs should be measurable, intrinsic to a team member’s role, and capped at four items. The last point is particularly important; while it may be tempting to write a long list of responsibilities, doing so will only confuse your employees and cast doubt on what their primary outputs should be.
This step is critical to establishing intent. Ask — why are we doing this? If we do this well, what is the result? How will this benefit the team member and the company?
When you establish outputs, it may help to preemptively consider what barriers a team member may face. Are the assigned outputs within their scope? Do they have the authority to execute their role as ordered? If the answer to either is no, you may have some rethinking to do.
Establish Firm Metrics for Progress — and Check Them.
This step in the process allows you to quantify a team member’s success beyond the limited success/failure mark. Work with your employees to develop methods to assess their performance on outputs. If you can, integrate existing reporting infrastructure to inform your conversations. Then, check them! You may find that your metrics need to be refined further. If not, the assessments you see will give you and your employees a better understanding of where they face challenges versus where they excel.
Consider Authority — Have You Empowered Them, or Are You Micromanaging Them?
Have an honest conversation with your team members. Are they struggling because they don’t have the authority to make the decisions that they need to make? Are some projects dragging because authority hasn’t been delegated clearly or appropriately? Is the team member uncertain of who they should be asking for permission? Are empowering your team members or are you part of the problem because you are micro-managing them?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you probably have an authority issue on your hands. Discussing authority will allow you to work with your team members to ensure that they have the clarity and decision-making power they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
At its heart, the idea behind thoughtful expectation-setting isn’t to ensure that a leader can harangue a team member when they fall short. Instead, it’s about starting a conversation and ensuring that everyone is aligned and equipped for success at all times. These candid discussions empower team members to point to their output metrics and say — this is where the problem is, or this is where I need support.
If you give people the tools, support, and freedom to succeed, they almost always will.