As a leader, you're constantly setting expectations with your team members in memos, meetings, and emails. Expectations give our colleagues the information and understanding they need to make the individual decisions that support their organizational goals. Setting expectations isn't easy, and leaders and managers struggle with this responsibility because successfully setting expectations relies on mutual understanding. Mutual understanding means both you and your team member agree on how to interpret or make meaning of the information, suggestion, or instruction.

Basically, for leaders to set clear expectations with team members, leaders have to be direct communicators.

Admittedly, direct communication has a tricky reputation. It's commonly associated with forcefulness or lacking empathy, but direct communication is not about aggressive attributes. It's about speaking plainly and avoiding assumptions. 

There are three common communication obstacles that prevent leaders from achieving mutual understanding and setting clear expectations. They are skirting the issue or using ambiguous language, reluctance to share the full story or minimizing details that can be viewed unfavorably, and not following up on an unresolved question because you assume it's burdensome to ask again.

Here's an overview of each communication obstacle, how to prevent it, and how to when you're about to commit it:

1. You're skirting the issue.

This happens when you use ambiguous words. There's no mutual understanding because your team member does not know the desired outcome or who is accountable for achieving the outcome. 

You're about to skirt the issue when ...

  • You use "we" or "all of us" because you're not comfortable pinpointing who is accountable for making the change; 

  • you vaguely address or avoid addressing an awkward situation that impacted the team sentiment or experience; or 

  • you haven't identified the objective of a conversation, the target, or any reference point your team can use to guide their progress.

Prevent this from happening by using specific names and concrete examples. This makes the obstacle clear and who is accountable for addressing the obstacle clear too. Pay attention to how directly you address performance. It's easier to say we than to explicitly address who. Accountability asks for what and by who. 

2. You're reluctant to share the full story.

This happens when you minimize information you fear could be perceived unfavorably. There's no mutual understanding because your team member doesn't have accurate information to guide their follow-up or decision. 

You're reluctant to share the full story when ...

  • You use over-apologetic or hedging language (e.g., kind of, perhaps, we could potentially) to cushion "tough" information;

  • you ask for the outcome your team member would most agree or feel comfortable with, not the outcome you really want; or

  • you withhold relevant information because you want to steer the conversation toward a specific outcome.

Prevent this from happening by expressing all relevant information without judging the consequences of being honest. Pay attention to how directly you communicate tough calls or make big requests. It's easier to negotiate first with yourself before you've even had the conversation with others. Be honest about what you want to achieve. 

3. You're not following up on an unresolved question.

This happens when you assume addressing the question again makes you burdensome, pesky, or a bother. There's no mutual understanding because you didn't receive any new information from the other person that would support an objective conclusion. 

You're not following up on an unresolved question because:

  • You believe following up with a clear yes or no question would lead to rejection or frustration from your team member;

  • you believe following up would make you seem eager, needy, or at lower-status; or 

  • you believe that your team member isn't interested or as invested as you are because they have yet to follow-up.

Prevent this from happening by following up and providing a deadline for responding so that you can confidently move on. Pay attention to how persistent you are when championing change and establishing stretch goals. It's easier for people to do what they know than to do something new. Inspire your team members to keep pushing through. 

Every professional has been on the receiving end of confusing instructions, visions, and plans. It's frustrating and time-wasting because they don't know what to do next. When leaders hold ourselves accountable for being direct communicators, we speak powerfully and with integrity, because our team sees that we are honest about our desired outcomes and clear about how we use our words.