Picture in your mind’s eye: you are sitting in a team meeting. One of your team members is not hitting the mark. As the leader, you need to tell him … but you waffle. You don’t want to hurt his feelings, so you use circumlocutions. You don’t want tempers to rise, so you water down the truth about the impact his poor performance is having.
If you have played out this scenario in real life, we can guarantee that in a few weeks or months, nothing will have changed except your level of frustration. But don’t blame your team member; the primary responsibility for the absence of forward progress isn’t his – it’s yours.
The root of the problem is a lack of clarity. You have not clearly and concisely communicated to your team member what the problem is, how it is affecting the business, and what you expect in the future. Without that critical information, your team member is not positioned to make positive changes in his behavior that will improve his performance. By trying to “soften the blow,” you have in reality sabotaged your team member’s (and therefore your entire team’s) potential for success.
Lack of clarity plagues feedback conversations at every level. As in the above scenario, a lack of clarity might be rooted in an aversion to conflict. If you fear how a message will be received, it is natural to round off the edges in how you present it. However, if you round things too much, your words will roll right on by the recipient. We have been in meetings where the person “receiving feedback” left believing that everything was going great!
You can also become guilty of a lack of clarity if you are in too much of a hurry to really think a matter through. If you have not defined for yourself what is happening now and what you want to happen in the future, it is impossible to communicate that to your team member. Many leaders do a vague verbal “dump” on a team member and then rush off, hoping that the person will “get it.” (Spoiler alert: they won’t.)
The results of a lack of clarity are serious. Poor communication breeds the very conflicts leaders try to avoid as frustrations – their own and their team members’ – continue to rise. Massive amounts of time and effort are wasted as people pursue objectives or attempt to deliver results they think are on target but that actually miss the mark. Professional careers can get derailed by ongoing performance issues that could have been corrected. Teams fail to achieve their goals and objectives, with ramifications for the health of the business.
All these negative consequences are avoidable if you bring clarity into your communications and feedback. To do so, put the following into action:
- Discipline yourself to think precisely. This is a discipline. It requires both time and effort to define problems, impacts, goals, and objectives. You may want to write down what you think and run it past an objective third party to “pressure test” what you are planning to say.
- Challenge yourself to communicate simply. Don’t make your message overly complex. Don’t wrap it in all kinds of comfortable words. Just say what you need to say.
- Remind yourself to verify frequently. Checking for understanding is a massively overlooked step in the feedback process. Ask your team member to paraphrase what you said to ensure that they really heard you and know what is expected of them. You want to get to the place where you and your team member are in alignment about what “success” looks like.
When you follow these steps, you will end up delivering a clear message that gets the results you want. In fact, your clarity may pave the way for solutions that would not have been thought of otherwise.
If you still are concerned that being clear and direct will “hurt” your team member, our experience is this: even if the message is a tough one, people prefer clarity because then they know what is expected of them. If you have good team members, you can be sure that they are trying to do a good job. Your feedback might sting a little, but they will accept that sting if it sets them up for success in the long run.