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3 Steps to Help Employees Understand Your Objectives and Expectations

When you set objectives, your job is to clearly relay your expectations to the employee.
3 Steps to Help Employees Understand Your Objectives and Expectations
Image credit: Shutterstock

In August of 2014, we wrote about the five questions to ask when you're thinking of firing an employee. We use those five questions ourselves: An example would be helping clients to make the tough decision to fire an employee. But, more importantly, we use them to help managers determine how to help employees perform at a higher level.

Related: The Bedrock of Performance Management? Communication of Acceptable Behavior.

The questions are:

  1. Are you sure that your employee fully understands the necessary objectives, and your expectations?
  2. Have you removed all roadblocks for him or her that are internal to your company?
  3. Has the employee been fully trained and given adequate time to practice the requisite skills
  4. Have you motivated the employee to perform?
  5. Is the employee capable and willing to perform the work?

These questions are so powerful that we believe each deserves a separate article. Therefore, over the next five weeks, we will explain how to use each question in more detail. Here is more detail on Question 1:

Are you sure that your employee fully understands the objectives and your expectations?

Managers and supervisors spend the bulk of their time communicating. The Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness reports that leaders surveyed say they spend about 80 percent of their time communicating. This time expenditure includes asking employees to complete specific tasks or solve issues, writing emails to delegate work assignments and training employees in new skills and behaviors.

However, most managers fail to also ensure that their employees understand these instructions on a consistent basis. If this is you, following the three steps below will help you communicate your expectations clearly and more fully ensure understanding.

1. State the objective in specific, quantifiable and bounded terms.  Whether written or verbal, instructions must give the employee enough detailed information that he or she can complete the task correctly. The amount of detail needed will change given the employee’s experience with that specific task. 

However, we believe that supervisors and managers should err on the side of too much rather than too little detail. In our experience, most mistakes begin when employees try to fill in the blanks and end with the supervisor stating, “That’s not what I meant.”

Instructions that are measurable and quantifiable make it easier for both the employee and employer to know when the employee has met the objective. Asking an employee to answer the phone doesn't supply enough detail. Asking him or her to answer the phone within three rings, using a specific greeting and a pleasant tone of voice is more likely to get you the behavior you want.

Related: Unhappy Employees Are Costing You: 4 Lessons From Denmark

Finally, timing and availability of resources should be part of the instructions. Providing employees with beginning and ending dates helps to cement expectations. In the initial instructions, managers should relay the names of other people the employee can involve, whether they can hire additional help and whether they have access to additional money and other resources to complete the task.

2. Check for understanding. Even after providing detailed instructions, the manager or supervisor must check for understanding. If no one does, and the employee doesn’t perform, the fault lies with the manager.

Let’s work through an example. At 8 a.m. one morning, a manager we work with told his assistant that he needed information on the company’s parking lot capacity and utilization. At 2 p.m. that afternoon, the assistant told the manager that she was leaving for the day -- as she did every day at that time.

When asked for the parking lot information, she explained that she would have it ready first thing in the morning; she planned to complete the report that evening. The manager was upset because he needed the report for an important staff meeting at 4 p.m. that day. The employee was devastated: She felt she had disappointed her boss and offered to stay to complete the report even though she needed to pick up her children.

The manager told her it was okay to leave; he would make do without the information. However, its absence reduced the productivity and results of his staff meeting.

When the manager related this story, we asked if he had been clear as to what time he needed the information and how the information would be used. He confessed he had not. When we asked how his employee could be expected to know how to prioritize her work without this information, he uttered the all-too-normal response, “But, I am her boss. I expected her to do my work first.” 

We disagreed: Had he checked for his employee's understanding by asking, “By what time do you think you could have that ready?” he could have clarified the objective. Similar questions that check for understanding include:

  • Where will you get the information?
  • What format will you use to write the report?
  • Will you need help to complete the project?

Asking open-ended questions allows managers to ascertain whether they have been successful in transmitting their request. As David Brendel reported in the Harvard Business Review, “Open-ended questions promote dialog and improve engagement.” So, avoid closed-ended questions such as, “Do you understand?” Closed-ended questions do not invite dialogue and don't tell you if the employee truly understands.

3. Follow-up. The final step is to set a follow-up time, date and location.  If you need a report by 4 p.m., you and your employee should agree that you will receive the report earlier (say, 1 p.m.) at your office to give you time to review and approve the work. If the job is complicated, or this is the first time the employee will attempt the task, you may want to set multiple follow-ups before employee delivers the final product. 

Related: Managing the Unmanageable: The 6 Most Common Types of Difficult Employees

If the manager in our example had given a specific, quantifiable and bounded objective; checked for understanding; and set a follow-up time allowing for rework or redirection, the outcome would have been different. Remember, when you set objectives, your job is to clearly relay your expectations to the employee. Following the three steps detailed above will help to eliminate miscommunication. Next: We'll take on the second question, regarding removing roadblocks.