A few weeks ago I received a call from a manager in a large, international energy company. He had a request, one which is not uncommon to people in my line of work.
It seems this manager has a direct report who was “underperforming in almost all areas and, despite every attempt at training that we could think of, does not seem to be making any progress.”
Could I help?
After brief discussion with the manager I asked what has become a standard question in these circumstances. “How would you know if he was doing an excellent job?”
As is often the case when posing this question, there was a brief pause followed by a nondescript answer quite lacking in specificity.
A little additional probing on my part resulted in a fairly clear description of what would constitute excellent work on the part of this employee and the areas in which, in the eyes of this manager, he seemed to be lacking.
Armed with this new bit of information I asked permission to speak with the employee. After a brief chat I asked him how he thought he was doing and he told me he thought he was doing an excellent job.
I asked him to describe in detail how he knew he was doing an excellent job and I listened very carefully to his response.
And guess what? His description of what specifically constitutes doing an extra job bore little resemblance to his manager’s response to that same question.
Their answers did not match.
And therein lies a problem that I have encountered too many times to remember.
You see, because the manager’s definition of an excellent job was so vastly different from that of his direct report, the employee, despite believing he was doing excellent work, has literally no chance of being viewed as an excellent employee by his boss.
In fact, it is almost impossible for him to do a good job – in the eyes of his boss.
And it all comes down to a single word: expectations.
When the manager told me how he would know if this employee was doing excellent work he was, in essence, sharing with me his expectations of what he wanted from this employee.
Regardless of anything else this employee produced, if his performance did not match those expectations, in the eyes of his manager he would always be judged as an errantemployee.
So naturally I asked both of them the same question. Have you ever had a detailed conversation around expectations?
And not surprisingly the answer was no – “not exactly, not in so many words.”
Expectations are very powerful things. One of the major contributors to conflict occurs when expectations are not met and it has long been a habit of mine to encourage every manager with whom I have worked to sit down, one-to-one with each of their direct reports and clearly lay out his/her expectations of that person’s performance.
And expectations are far more than the words contained in a job description. We all have different biases and these biases are reflected in how we judge others. It is safe to say that no two managers will evaluate the same person by precisely the same criteria.
And every good manager understands that if they demand excellence from each employee then they have a very clear obligation to provide every employee with an unambiguous, crystal clear definition of what excellence looks like.
On many occasions I have encouraged employees to approach their managers and ask for a clearly defined list of expectations of their performance – how their bosses are going to determine whether they do excellent work.
And on more than one occasion I have received calls from their managers asking “what the hell are you doing?”
My answer to these managers is always the same. If you are not having these conversations with your direct reports, if you are not clearly and unequivocally outlining your expectations and letting them know how you are going to measure and judge their performance then you are not doing your job.
Plain and simple.
Till we read again.
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