What to do if your team is letting you down

Make your expectations clear to your team

I was working with a CEO who was frustrated that his team often failed to meet deadlines. When I asked why he thought that was, he explained that it was because they were lazy. When I met with the team to ask why they were often late, they explained that the culture of the organization was built around quality. They had been told that mistakes are not an option. They were so afraid to make a mistake, they strived for perfection instead of progress.

The CEO thought he was holding his team accountable. However, he had not clearly communicated that meeting deadlines was just as important as producing quality work.

Many leaders believe that holding people accountable is the key to getting the results they want. There’s one problem with this, though: Sometimes we get frustrated with people for not meeting our expectations, yet we have never communicated what they were in the first place.

Of course, first you have to know how you define what you want. This is often the most difficult step.

To figure out what you really want your employee to do, ask yourself what you want the end product to look like. How would you define success? For example, if you need something immediately, avoid terms like “ASAP” or “when you get a chance.” Instead, you might ask, “are there any other barriers or competing priorities that will prevent you from meeting a 10 a.m. deadline?”

Since we tend to resist what we do not choose, leaders also need to get people involved in defining expectations. Get employees together and brainstorm what an ideal staff member would look like: team player, self-motivated, positive and so on. Once you have the list, narrow it down to a handful of characteristics and define them. Get specific. For example, you and your team may define “positive” by the following behavioral expectations: open-minded to new ideas, solution-oriented, or always greets customers with a smile. Define the specific behaviors you want to see.

Be aware that we may assign different meanings to words. You might want employees to act with integrity, but that can mean different things to different people. One employee infers that he or she should not gossip or spread rumors, while another thinks it means following through on promises. Getting clear about expectations means that everyone is on the same page.

Finally, ensure your employees have gotten the message. Simply asking, “Do you understand?” is not ensuring understanding. Whether you ask the person to paraphrase, summarize, or re-explain, it is helpful to hear the other person reflect what they heard to make sure you are on the same page. No one wants to look like they don’t get it, so in an effort to save face, they smile and nod in agreement. Instead of asking “Do you understand?” try saying, “Walk me through what you’re going to do.”

If you’ve done all of this and your team still isn’t delivering the results you want, try taking these two steps:

– Explain what you do want, rather than what you don’t. For instance, your co-worker might get frustrated that you don’t respond to urgent emails fast enough. Rather than saying, “stop emailing about urgent issues”, try, “when an issue is urgent, I would really appreciate it if you could call me or stop by my desk.”

– Reward the positive and coach the negative: Remember that people repeat behavior that gets attention. If your expectations are met, make sure you say thank you or show appreciation. If your expectations are not met, before assuming the person intentionally disappointed you, make sure you communicated what you wanted clearly.

(Anne Grady is the author of “52 Strategies for Life, Love and Work.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate