Updated: Nov 6, 2019
As a mentor for leaders, there are some conversations you have over-and-over again. One common conversation begins with a statement like this:
I’m having a problem with staff not taking direction and/or resisting our strategic vision and goals. Why aren’t staff listening to me? Why aren’t they doing what the leadership expects them to do?
We’ve all participated in momentous meetings where a new idea, plan, or vision is birthed. As a leader, we’re excited. This launch is likely the fruit of long planning, dreaming, and ruminating. Finally, the time for action is upon us. We rock the meeting. Heads are nodding in unison. The team is ready to hit the field with creative abandon. The time for action is now!
And then, nothing happens…
Whether the goal was to plan an office potluck or develop a new core product, every culture has deep and microscopically unique features that might help explain why nothing happened. Perhaps this failure to launch is rooted in the complex web of interlocking emotional intelligences in your organization. Or, there’s some deep-seated organizational stress or trauma that is preventing people from taking risks. Maybe everyone thought the idea was dumb in the first place and didn’t trust you enough to say so. Perhaps there is a secret cabal of naysayers working to undermine your glorious dreams.
All of those things are possible, but frankly none of them are likely or particularly important.
If you frequently ask yourself the questions above, the answers are usually pretty simple. In fact, the answers are likely simpler than most of us would like them to be. They are:
1. Your expectations are not clear. When presented with the problem above during a mentoring session, I invariably ask the leader to tell me exactly what they said to the person or group they feel is resisting them or slow-walking their dreams. Even after listening to what is likely a much better pitch than their staff actually received, my response is usually something like this, “Yeah. I have no idea what you expect either.”
Learn the fine skill of pre-planning talking points for expectations. Write them down. Edit them into short focused nubs of language that are punchy and easy to understand. Eliminate jargon, fuzziness, squishy psycho-babble, and all sundry forms of amorphous leader-speak.
For instance, an expectation like this communicates very little to staff:
“So, I think if the marketing team can communicate the heart of who we are to this type of customer we are really going to be significant player in this market-space.”
Whereas this statement communicates far more clear and explicit expectations:
“Over the next three quarters, marketing messages on Facebook and YouTube aimed at this specific target demographic should include the following two key selling points we've discussed…”
You get the point.
Know exactly what you are going to say before you open your mouth. If you tend to talk at people until you and others know what you are talking about, you’re likely burning precious brain cells for all concerned.
Most of the time... think in private, speak in public.
Never throw word-salads at your staff. People will simply start tuning you out even though they look like they are listening. That uniform eye-contact and nodding noted earlier can mean understanding and agreement.
However, if you are in the habit of hogging the mic and winging-it at meetings, that aggressive nodding might just mean that people are thinking, “Please, make it stop. I have work to do…”
Even if your expectations are clear, the second most common and related reason people aren’t doing what you expect them to do is:
2. You haven’t stated the expectations frequently enough. If you work with more than one or two other people, you need to state and restate what is most important far more frequently than you imagine. Frankly, even if you work entirely alone the same advice still holds. Most leaders underestimate the needed frequency of important messages by a factor of ten.
This means that you need to state your talking points ten times more frequently than you are now.
You’ll know that you are reaching the appropriate threshold of frequency when people literally begin to groan when you start your spiel again. Then, you need to say “it” a few more times.
Saying something once at some meeting a month ago, even if it was the most compelling speech in the history of leadership, is entirely insufficient. Even worse, if you are relying in digital communication to get your message out, you’re likely pursuing a truly lost cause. You should assume that, no, people did not read your latest memo, vision document, or email missive. No matter how visionary you are or how much people love working for you, no one is anxiously awaiting your next brilliant email chock full of new ideas.
Every new idea creates disruption, uncertainty, and more work for your staff – at least in the short term. So, most of the people receiving those messages have an innate tendency to tune-out impersonally delivered messages, or not even read them in first place.
You can certainly include digital, text, video, or other forms of communication as part of your frequency plan. However, no one sets the world in motion from a keyboard. If it’s truly important, show up and say it in person. Then do it ten more times.
Finally, the last reason really stings:
3. You frequently fail to follow through on your ideas and stated expectations. Most leaders have lots of ideas. In fact, they have too many ideas. They typically have so many ideas that no one team or organization could possibly act on them all or sort the good ones from the bad ones.
When you work for a leader like this, it’s nearly impossible to tell truly important ideas that come with real expectations, from the ones that are simply part of your boss’ unregulated mental overflow.
There's one sure sign of this that I experience several times per year. When I notice some organizational activity that seems odd or ineffective, I ask, “Why are we doing this? Whose idea was that?”
To which the awkward answer is, “Umm… That was your idea.”
Note to self... Time to throttle down the idea machine and start focusing on following through on the things I’ve already set in motion.
As a leader, choosing what not to say is just as important as knowing what messages need to be drilled into the organizational brain with regularity.
When you share too many ideas and habitually brainstorm too widely, your staff loses the ability know what ideas demand definitive action. If you have a strong working relationship with your team, most will have an innate desire to please you. It’s on the leader to help them sort out clear expectations from the mental noise.
Most people want to do a “good job” and seek approval from leadership. This means they need clear expectations that have been effectively and repeatedly communicated. It’s not as fun as thinking up new stuff, but it’s part of the leadership grind that you have to embrace and learn to love.
For the sake of clarity and simplicity, you have to be disciplined about not sharing everything that’s on your mind. What you might want to do is infinitely less important to everyone around you than what you truly intend to do – and to which the team will be held to account.
When you regularly float clouds of brainstorms and/or fail to follow through on vaguely stated expectations, staff rightly develop habits of inaction.
After all, if you aren’t really sure what you want, how do you expect your staff to know?
In summary, if your most recent great idea seems stuck in the gooey gumdrops of organizational inaction: clarify and simplify your message, repeat that message ad nauseam, and follow through on your expectations with mind-numbing consistency.
Then, and only then, are we ready to talk about other possible reasons why no one is doing what you want.
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