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As a team leader, one of your most important roles is to give people the clarity to understand what is expected of them. Research confirms that when a person understands their tasks, responsibilities and processes at work, their performance can improve by 25%. Yet, according to the same study, almost half of the people working in teams today are not clear on what’s expected of them. In this article, I explore how a leader’s role is not only to set direction but also to define performance-driving behaviours, provide timely feedback and create the direct accountability that will elevate performance. So, as a leader, how much clarity are you giving your team? 

I was prompted to write this article by a recent Harvard Business Review report on the Power of Hidden Teams, which highlighted that one of the strongest indicators of a person’s trust in their team leader was: “at work, I clearly understand what is expected of me”. The report indicates that when a leader creates clarity around expectations, trust is more easily built. Although clarity may be only one of the contributing factors, the people working in teams who strongly agree that they trust their team leader are eight times as likely to be fully engaged than those who don’t — which, as we know, positively contributes to overall workplace performance.

The idea of providing clarity may not appear that surprising, yet the data suggests almost half of the team leaders working in organisations today overestimate the amount of clarity they provide for their people. The lack of clarity between what is expected and what is understood by the individuals working in a team means that people draw on past experience as well as their own biases and assumptions to work towards organisational goals. This lack of clarity has a negative impact on team members in a number of ways. It may lead to engaging in lengthy and unnecessary side conversations, trying to make sense of what is expected of them, or to a focus on low-value output. Some team members may even duplicate tasks, and conflict can arise when people need to work together to get the job done. In dealing with these challenges, a team leader may compensate with unnecessarily long status meetings in an attempt to provide a better understanding to team members of what is required by whom, and how best to work together to complete tasks.

Therefore, looking to the future, leaders have an opportunity to be more intentional in the clarity they create for their people. To do this, they need to facilitate conversations that create shared meaning and a deeper understanding of what is expected. Providing clarity also requires a leader’s ongoing attention as organisational goals change, team members come and go, and projects evolve.  So, with this in mind, how can you, as a team leader, create greater clarity? Here are four ways to get started.

  1. Clarify direction and your team’s reason for being

A team needs a compelling purpose. People need to care about achieving organisational goals. Although extrinsic rewards like incentives are important, team members also need the intrinsic reward that comes with adding a sense of meaning to their work. The intention in defining a team’s purpose is to inspire people to do great work by expressing the impact they have on the people they serve. Although in providing this sense of purpose, leaders need to clarify the connection between the purpose and the strategies, plans and goals of each member of the team. In doing so, they’ll also make the purpose a part of daily interactions, by providing regular updates on each person’s contribution to the team’s collective goals.

  1. Clarify the performance-enhancing behaviours

Creating clarity around the desired behaviours in teams can help reduce the risk of conflict and the demotivation that comes when team members observe different standards. Leaders can help by clarifying what behaviours team members should demonstrate, such as always being punctual to meetings, as well as those that interfere with the team’s performance, like interrupting or speaking over someone in a meeting. Defining these performance-enhancing behaviours is becoming increasingly important with greater diversity in teams, virtual teamwork on the rise, and the accelerating pace of work in many organisations — otherwise, when these behavioural norms are not overtly expressed people will make assumptions based on experiences or by observing the behaviour of others in the team.

  1. Clarify your team members’ direct responsibilities

People need to understand what they are accountable for in their role. A lack of clarity creates uncertainty, which can be stressful and undermine people’s cognitive ability. It also creates confusion over decision-making authority, which wastes valuable time. Job descriptions do play a part, of course, but it goes beyond this to define what Apple describesas the ‘directly responsible individual’, where specific responsibilities are nominated to each team member. Communication, productivity and accountability in teams are all strengthened by creating clarity around what a person is directly responsible for. Providing clarity applies not only to someone’s overall role, but to the delegation of any project, task or agenda item — it should be part of the culture and apply to every aspect of a team’s operations.

  1. Clarify performance standards through timely feedback

Timely feedback can help people improve their performance, yet it still remains one of the most underused development tools. Leaders need to get comfortable with giving feedback in the moment, and to overcome their discomfort, often driven by a need for acceptance and belonging. A benefit of giving feedback in the moment is that it opens up a conversation with greater clarity, as the leader can be more descriptive about what they just experienced, and the team member can more easily reflect on their comments. Furthermore, when a leader also gives a person time to reflect and get clear themselves on what they just heard, there is a stronger likelihood they will act.

As a leader, a commitment to providing clarity will help create an environment where people can thrive with increased trust, job satisfaction and supporting the overall performance of each member of the team. Although to get clear on what’s expected, leaders first need to be clear themselves on what they are looking for. To embrace clarity as a leadership behaviour requires the mindfulness to slow down and the openness to engage in dialogue from where clarity can emerge.

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