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Rosabeth Moss Kanter has an interesting post today on HBR.org called: Four Things Groups Want that Leaders Can’t Give — and One They Can. To spoil the message, the four things are: Absolutely clear expectations about everything, Perfect certainty about the future, Yes all the time, The ending at the beginning. And the one they can is TLC — tender loving care. You got to love that.
I want to concentrate on the first thing “groups want that leaders can’t give”:
Absolutely clear expectations about everything. Expectation-setting sounds good as a leadership principle but is difficult in practice, especially when leaders try to tell people about things they haven’t yet encountered and do not yet have the experience to comprehend. No matter how much leaders try to define expectations, lay out the nature of likely events, or describe the steps that the group will be going through, it’s not enough. As the work unfolds, leaders are likely to hear, “Why didn’t you tell us X, Y, or Z?” Even when leaders pull out the opening memo with X, Y, and Z spelled out in detail, some people deny that they received it. All leaders can do is strive to be thorough, to communicate repeatedly, and to document the flow of events.
I agree with Kanter completely but I think it is important to note that the fact that we can’t set expectations about everything does not mean we shouldn’t set them at all. Like with many other things in life, it is a matter of choosing the right issues to focus on. More than a year ago I wrote a post about the importance of expectations and got into an interesting debate in the comments about what it actually means. I think that debate revolves around the point I want to make here. No one can set expectations for every possible scenario. In fact, that collides with second thing “groups want that leaders can’t give”: perfect certainty about the future. That is why expectations should be used as templates not as clear rules. When we think about setting expectations, somehow, the picture that comes to mind is one of micromanaging. Instead, expectations should be less about the task itself or how to do it and more about the process of communication and about the guidelines for decision-making.
No. there wouldn’t be clear expectations about everything. Actually, there wouldn’t be about most things. But, if we recognize a number of key issues, the vital signs of our business if you will, and set our expectations around these issues and about how and when to communicate, those are things that groups might not want, but they certainly need.