One of the greatest challenges leaders can face is something they often don’t even realize is a problem. What happens is that leaders often have a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen in their head-who’s doing what and why. The problem is that just because it’s clear in their head, leaders might not realize things aren’t as clear for their staff. It’s only human for us to tend to assume that something that’s clear for us is just as clear for others.
Leaders often overestimate how well staff have digested messages and it’s common that staff need repeated communication or further elucidation to gain clarity. Unfortunately, this problem often goes unrecognized until it really affects output - staff might miss a deadline, skip a task or need to redo something because they have not been clear on what was required, or specifically what their role in the project was. Staff will often suffer in silent confusion rather than risk looking stupid for not understanding something, and the likelihood is that where one team member is unclear, others probably are too.
So how do you make sure you and your team are on the same page? This article will take you through some best practices for giving clarity to your team.
Ideally, you don’t want staff members coming to you seeking clarification or worse, battling on in confusion waiting until it’s too late to ask and mistakes are already made. Better to support your team in the offensive - providing greater clarity so your team members don’t have to ask for it.
Systematic clarity obviates the need for constantly assessing what needs to be done everyday. Ideally you should have systems and processes in place to maintain clarity. There are four main areas leaders may commonly need to provide clarity and where a workplace can benefit from processes set up to address clarity around these issues. These areas are, clarity of roles and responsibility, clarity on purpose and clarity on plans.
Giving staff clarity on their role often starts with developing a job description. Whether you are drafting a new position or reorganizing the positions in your team, you need to think through these reflection questions for each role.
Reflecting on these questions should enable you to create job descriptions which are firmly grounded in purpose and strategy.
When employing new staff, refer to the job description and use your answers to these questions to explain how their job description relates to the big picture. At this point the last couple of questions prompt important discussions on the practicalities of who they report directly to, what projects they are responsible for, and what is expected along with KPIs etc.
Where staff have been employed for some time, it’s good practice to schedule check-in meetings with staff where you return to a discussion of their job description, how things might have changed using the opportunity to clarify the specificities of their responsibilities as they might have developed from when they were initially employed. Clearly explain what decisions they are expected to make and which decisions are beyond their level of authority. Let them know what you hold them accountable for and how their role relates to the overall plan and purpose of the organization.
When assigning tasks to your team, you should naturally return to your organizational plan to revisit where each of your team members fit in. Review their areas of responsibility and determine whose names are on what tasks. Remember to assign ultimate accountability to a specific person - that is, where there are shared tasks or team members collaborating on various aspects of a project - determine whose name is ultimately accountable for what. This is a very important step in resolving or avoiding conflict. Staff can easily become very stressed and insecure about a given workload, their performance or team work if there is confusion over responsibility. Team members often perform best when they can take ownership of a task and be focused on achieving the best outcome for that task.
Purpose is quite the organizational buzzword of the moment, and with good reason. It is the guiding light that flows through every level and ideally to every task that every staff member undertakes. Any asset a company creates should ideally flow from a strong sense of purpose.
When explaining purpose to your employees, make clear that it’s not about making money and achieving numbers, but it’s about the reason why you do what you do as an organization. It’s the ‘why bother?’ behind everything and how you’re making an impact in the world.
Break purpose down to the strategy you’re executing.
It’s likely as a leader, you’ve spent countless hours and documents developing strategy. For the purpose of keeping your team on track, keep all the deliberations, examination and intricacies of your strategy in your head and summarize your strategy as briefly and clearly as you can in three simple bullet points.
From here, refer to your goals for the year. Ground the goal for your team in the overall goals for the organization for the year.
Revisit what you’ve achieved so far this year and which objectives are outstanding.
It’s a good idea to systematically schedule strategy meetings for the whole team to get everyone together on the same page on the bigger picture. Where the strategy is new or your organization is undertaking considerable strategy work, multiple meetings may be necessary and could be incorporated into more specific planning meetings. Otherwise, it might be that a discussion of purpose and strategy is a team day or event at the start of the year.
Dedicating an annual strategy day is a useful tool in not only giving clarity to the staff as to the purpose of the work, but also often generates greater motivation and commitment from staff. Teams are much more invested in their work when they can clearly see how they are making a difference. A meeting is also a safe forum for staff to pose their questions or for you to pose them questions to ascertain how well they understand overall goals.
We have already touched on the dangers of staff being unsure of their specific responsibilities and which tasks have been assigned to them. When team members are unsure who is responsible for what, it not only makes it difficult for them to perform optimally, but generally can make them grumpy and snappy! Insecurity puts people on their defensive and it’s more likely they will create conflict or have difficulty collaborating with others.
Systematic clarity can avoid these horrors by ensuring everyone feels safe and secure in THE PLAN.
Depending on whether you’re planning out projects or assigning tasks, your procedural approach may vary.
Developing plans for a project could take place over a couple of meetings with project owners. At this point it should be clearly decided who will be involved and how. The plan for projects can then be maintained with regular status meetings for the team.
On the whiteboard or using a tool like Asana, list all the tasks related to team projects and assign a name to each task so the team is crystal clear on who is ultimately responsible at the end of the day, even where there are shared tasks.
With meetings that you have calendarized as part of the process of giving clarity to your team, you can address clarity proactively, attempting to combat confusion before it creates any serious damage. Your team will be more effective, productive and secure which will in turn boost a healthy work culture. As a leader, stop up and test yourself occasionally. Run through all the plans and team structure in your head and ask yourself if you think it’s just as clear in your team members’ heads. Realize that it’s natural to make assumptions that people have understood things that you think are very clear, so where you detect any signs of ambiguity it’s likely that addressing it head on will minimize damage later. When communicating one on one with staff, get into the habit of asking them if they have understood or for them to repeat back to you the next steps. Providing clarity can take a little bit of time, but in the long term saves you time by avoiding all the headaches that arise from confusion.