A few weeks ago we started a series called The Tripwires of Leadership.  In that first installment, we talked about tripwires of identity.  Those tripwires include all of the wonderful behaviors, biases and idiosyncrasies that can have such a negative effect on others.  Now that you’ve had almost a month to get rid of any such personal shortcomings, it’s time to look at the next set of tripwires to avoid: tripwires of clarity.  

Tripwires of clarity can arise from either “input” problems (how we interpret what we see), or “output” problems (how we describe what we’re looking for).

1. The input problem. The input problem centers on issues of perception or comprehension.  How good are we at objectively reading a situation? Even with great leadership or entrepreneurial instincts, do we always know what‘s really going on? Do we know if our view of the marketplace, our competition, our products and our people is truly accurate? One of the best prognosticators I know, George Colony, the CEO of Forrester Research, says that batting .700 is a pretty good track record.  That still means that even if you’re good, you can reasonably expect to be wrong 30% of the time.

2. The output problem, or, how do we express what we want. Here, there are three individual tripwires leaders can stumble over:

  • Tripwires of Aspiration. As a leader, how well do you describe your own goals, objectives, proposed solutions or wishes? What do you really want?  Even if you have expressed these goals to others clearly and frequently, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve internalized the message. There are plenty of ways to figure out whether your staff understands your goals. A low-cost online survey provider such as Survey Monkey or Zoomerang will gladly help you out. Or cut to the chase, and ask the truth-tellers in your organization to level with you.  
  • Tripwires of Expectation. This is all about role clarity and decision rights. What do you want people to start, stop, continue, know, do, or avoid?  Is it clear to your staff what they can or cannot do on their own? Anne Drapeau, EVP and Chief People Officer of Iron Mountain Corporation, has long preached the doctrine of specificity in both direction-setting and decision making: “Asking people to be ‘more of a leader’ is absolutely useless,” she says. “Give them some clarity.  Let them know their roles, rights and responsibilities.”  Go back to the old SMART rule: Directives should be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound.

           In making a decsion, people need to know two things:

           1. If a decision is purely their call, they (and everyone else) must be told that explicitly.

           2. If he or she needs to get others to ratify or approve something beforehand, that must be explicit too.

  • Tripwires of Calibration.  We fall over the tripwires of calibration when we fail to deliver timely, useful feedback. Telling people in a performance review what they should have done six months ago falls squarely into this category. So does holding back on encouragement, or remaining on the sidelines if people could use a quick assist. Note that I say assist, rather than taking over the wheel. Hard as it may be to resist, you can train yourself not to micro-manage.  That “taking over the wheel” stuff is not just a tripwire of calibration.  It’s a tripwire of identity. 

No one would say that avoiding the tripwires of clarity is easy.  And no one will avoid them all the time.  To return to Forrester’s George Colony, maybe batting .700 would be a pretty good goal.