Leadership Resolution 3 – Set Clear, Meaningful Expectations and Boundaries

By Heather Campbell

I missed posting this article last week; I was ‘bubbling’ with my niece, helping with her three-year old toddler and four-month-old baby, neither of whom seem to find that sleeping (either day or night) is a requirement. Once again, hats off to every parent of young children in this lockdown situation. What a tough gig.

Back to my rather quieter office this week so let’s get to work with a bit of mathematics.

Which of the following questions can you answer most easily and accurately – no calculator allowed?

1.   √1395

2.   3+3

3.   What are all the maths calculations you know?

I’m guessing the second one is easiest to answer correctly. Then the first one (I learned how to type the square root symbol just for this article, by the way – every day’s a school day 😊).  And I suspect you’ll find the third one is impossible to answer easily and accurately. What the heck am I looking for?

And that brings me to the third Leadership Resolution that I’m recommending you adopt for the rest of 2021. As a leader, recognise that you have both a right and a responsibility to set clear, meaningful expectations and boundaries if you want people to deliver.  This is one of the areas where I find many leaders struggle today. 

There are three main causes of this:

  • The leader doesn’t have clear expectations in the first place – more of an overarching desire that they hope people will second-guess and then deliver. 
  • The leader has a tendency to change their mind about what they want – I can hear my team screaming out that I’m guilty of this one.
  • The leader doesn’t set expectations and boundaries because they’ve been told so often they should ask and not direct.

It’s this third one I want to focus on as your third Leadership Resolution for 2021. Today, I find that leaders are often confused about whether or not it’s okay to set clear boundaries and to give direction. I think a lot of this is down to messaging over the last 15 – 20 years that leaders should ask rather than tell and coach rather than direct. Of course, sometimes leaders should ask and coach – but sometimes they need to tell and direct too. The problem is that the messaging about the former has caused confusion about the latter, and means that leaders keep asking, coaching and exploring when they should be telling, directing and setting boundaries.  

As leaders, not only do we have a right to set clear expectations and boundaries, we also have a responsibility to do so. If we don’t, we leave people confused and make it hard for them to deliver. Take a look at those maths-related questions again. The third one is so vague it’s impossible to know what’s expected or how to deliver the answer I’m looking for.  This sets up a lose-lose situation for everyone and it’s one of the reasons why this resolution is so important. 

Here are three practical ways you can apply this resolution in 2021:

  1. If you have something that you expect from someone, tell them and explain why you need this. Be clear and specific.
  2. Don’t ask people to debate whether or not something should be done when you have already made a decision. This is a waste of time. Instead, be up front about your decisions and only spend time debating those areas that genuinely can be changed.
  3. Don’t ask people to critique their own performance if you haven’t been satisfied with something they’ve done, hoping they’ll identify that same ‘mistakes’ as you have. If they don’t get the ‘right’ ones, you’ll have to find a way to introduce your views anyway. Instead, share your feedback and ask people to comment on that. 

Of course, if you are setting boundaries that are too tight (3+3 might be just a bit of a basic maths problem) or expectations that are unfair (working out √1395 without a calculator would definitely be unfair with my maths ability!), that’s a different matter. But assuming your expectations and boundaries are fair and reasonable, be up front about them. Avoid asking and coaching when you already know what you want. You have a right and a responsibility to set clear expectations and clear boundaries – it will make it far easier for people to deliver what’s really required.

Fourth and final resolution to come soon – I think I’d better get the resolutions covered before we’re too far into the new year! Resolution number 4 all begins with a story of bacteria.

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