In many ways, leadership is about risk mitigation. You want to channel resources and team effort in the direction most likely to generate the results you want, while at the same time minimizing the potential downside of getting it wrong. This is especially challenging when doing creative work, because the downside of getting it wrong can be significant. If you make the wrong decisions early in a project, the net result can be days or weeks of wasted work, maybe making it impossible to course correct.
Because of the risk involved, many leaders unknowingly become less than clear about their expectations for the work or of the team. They might speak in vague terms or give opaque direction because they themselves are not certain of the right decision. They know the team needs to move forward, but it’s not clear to them yet what forward actually means. They want to protect themselves from a mistake, so they lack precision.
The problem with this is that their lack of precision and clarity has a trickle-down effect within the organization. Direction diffuses. Things don’t become more clear as you get farther and farther from the decision-maker, they become less so. Thus, a few team dynamics emerge:
1. Because they don’t want to waste their time, team members just wait until you tell them what to actually do before starting their work.
2. Dissonance emerges as each team member interprets what you want, sometimes leading to misalignment and disjointedness among those responsible for executing on the work.
Team members need leaders to be precise about expectations. They don’t need you to be right, but they do need you to be clear even when you are uncertain. Here are a few areas where you need to ensure you are being precise:
Precise Language. When sharing your decisions or expectations with the team, speak in nouns and verbs, not lofty adjectives and adverbs. Be a laser, not a lighthouse. A lighthouse tells you what not to do by pointing out danger areas, but doesn’t really give you a clear path forward. A laser is precise and focused and points you to a desired outcome. You should aim to use precise language when speaking with the team. Don’t use industry buzz-phrases or metaphors. Find a clear, compelling, precise way to communicate what you want, even if you’re uncertain you’re correct.
Precise Expectations. Be very clear about what you want, when you want it, who will do it, why it matters, and what the outcome will be if you are successful. Don’t leave room for vague interpretations of when the work is needed, who the responsible parties are, or why any of it matters to begin with. All effective expectations include assignment of responsibility, articulation of timeline, and accountability for results. If your expectations don’t include all three, you aren’t being precise enough.
Precise Objectives. Where are you leading the team? How will you know you’ve arrived? Why will any of it matter? Many leaders speak in lofty, vague terms about their vision for the work or the team because they aren’t really certain about their own intuition. Team members need to know that you have clear objectives in mind, that you are aware of the obstacles you will encounter along the way, and that you have a plan to overcome them. You must be clear about where you are leading the team in spite of your personal insecurities.
Leaders, be precise in how you communicate with your team. You owe them that. Once your team members have clear bounding arcs and a solid objective in mind, they will reward you with more consistent, aligned, imaginative work.
Want to explore this topic more? Check out my book Herding Tigers.