Last year I wrote about my first rule for managers: the phrase “My expectation is…” Feel free to read it, but in summary, it’s my rule where I can’t be upset with an employee about something unless the words “my expectation is [insert clear expectation]” have come out of my mouth. I found that clearly and directly communicating those expectations solved many, if not most, of problems I ran into managing a team.
For the last few years, I’ve been managing multiple teams, and each has its manager. Being a manager of managers, it’s a whole new communication game. I found myself caught in a common trap: getting too hands-on and stuck in the weeds with some of my teams. Even worse, I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for.
I’ve spent a great deal of effort trying to pull myself out of the implementation details and focus on the bigger picture. As I’ve done this, I’ve noticed the phrase “my expectation is” doesn’t come out of my mouth nearly as often when communicating with my managers or teams. I’ve replaced it with two phrases:
- “My desired outcome is…”
- “The outcome I want to avoid is…”
While I still set clear expectations, many times, I can’t go in an outline every expectation I need from my manager or teams. Besides, they are smart individuals! They are managers for a reason. Only communicating specific expectations pulls me too far into the weeds ( aka implementation details).
Why it’s a problem
When I got too far into the details, it led to two problems:
- First, I was unintentionally thinking for my teams instead of letting my teams determine solutions. I was dictating how to do their jobs, and I don’t have time for that, nor do they need it! I was taking away autonomy, not empowering them.
- Second, and arguably, the more severe problem, as I spent all of my time talking about the “what” and not the “why.” I could spell out a dozen expectations but then still not get my desired results. It’s frustrating to feel like you’ve been clear with your teams, only to have them not understand what you’re really trying to communicate.
Whose fault was that? Mine.
I’ll use a math example: take the equation “A+B=C.” I would spend a ton of time talking about A and B, and then get frustrated when I wouldn’t get C. To me, it was super obvious, given all of the inputs, that one single output is implied, right?
What did I need to do? I needed to communicate, “I want C.”
Let’s say we have project X has some unique performance and uptime requirements. As the team discusses deployment strategies, I find myself drawn into way too many of the details: how to load balance between containers mid-deployment, how to keep the old deployment hot for a quick rollback, etc.
I realize I’m deep in the weeds, so I pause and say “Ok, I’ve realized I haven’t communicated the outcomes I’m looking for. Here are my desired outcomes: we have a deployment system that won’t interrupt any requests midstream. The application needs not to drop a single request during deploys. I also need to be able to rollback as instantaneous as possible in-case there is an issue. All of this needs to happen under a high load of thousands of requests per second.”
I continue, “The outcomes I’m looking to avoid are deployments that take a very long time, are brittle, and are difficult to rollback. I don’t want to break our service level agreement because of a botched deploy. Are there any questions about this?”
The team asks me questions to clarify the outcomes I’m looking for, and we tweak my expectations given the realities of our system and constraints. The team isn’t clear on how to meet one of the requirements, so we spend some time discussing options on safe rollbacks.
Why this is better
Switching to clearly stating the outcomes had several significant advantages:
- First, it communicated what I was going to measure success for my people and teams. Instead of explicit instructions with implied results, I switched to specific results with and let the teams figure out how.
- Second, it empowered my managers and teams. They’re smart; they can figure out the best way to achieve the outcome I wanted. Many times they’ve blown me away with their ideas, things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
- Third, it surfaced the actual areas my managers and teams need help with solving. If they don’t see a clear path to meeting the outcomes I’m looking for, they ask specific questions that will help them. Those conversations are way more helpful and illuminating. Stating desired outcomes also allows me to shape or change them if they’re not realistic.
I highly recommend identifying both the outcomes you want and the outcomes you want to avoid. In short, you’re saying, “this is what would make me happy and what would disappoint me.”
I’ve become so accustomed to talking about outcomes that if somehow I don’t say it, my direct reports will ask, “To clarify, what outcomes are you looking for?” That’s a great question to hear as a director.
Can I go into the weeds?
Absolutely! There is just one condition: you need an invitation. If your team comes to you with a particular problem they could use some help with, you’re welcome to dive deep with them. Your team is still responsible for solving the problem; you’re just there to provide advice.
The Director’s First Rule
So what is my rule? If I feel myself getting too far into the details with my team, I have to ask myself the question: “have I stated the outcomes I want and don’t want?” If no, I need to back up and state the outcomes I’m looking for. I then ask them if they have any questions, and if they don’t, I can move on and leave the weeds right there. If I’m invited in for a particular part, great, I’ll roll up my sleeves and get dirty.