Clarify Mutual Expectations
Setting the Stage
Chapter One begins with Joe, the manager mentioned in the introduction, thinking about what to do with the development plan sections of the performance appraisals he needs to complete…
It was first thing in the morning. Joe sat and stared at the four performance appraisals on his desk. The development plans needed to be completed. And then the development was supposed to begin.
Joe agreed that development was important. Most of the people who worked for him certainly wanted to continue learning. Beyond that, there was just a lot he wasn’t sure about when it came to development. People in HR told him he ought to build his coaching skills. But he didn’t really have time and he wasn’t sure what exactly he was supposed to do as a coach. He’d been to a few workshops and there was good information. But it all just seemed very complicated and a lot of work. In the workshops he heard about styles and other ways he was supposed to change his behavior. Some people called them steps; other people called them perspectives.
There were even colorful diagrams. It sort of made sense in the moment. But that faded pretty quickly. Bottom line: It was ok; but it was just too much. He already had a job.
He knew he didn’t see himself as a teacher. And the truth was that Joe really didn’t know a lot about some of the things his people wanted or needed to learn. How would he teach them if he had to? How could he coach them? Besides, development sometimes seemed like a black hole.
While he agreed it was a good thing, he wasn’t sure his people were learning enough and he was concerned that they weren’t focused on what they should be learning. Whatever the case, he knew that his employees were not learning fast enough.
In the past, he would give his employees the development plan forms to complete. They would complete the forms and then he would have a discussion with them. And after that, well… not a lot would happen until the next year’s performance appraisal. During the year, Joe would ask
about progress when he remembered or when one of his employees had a question. But that was about it. He wanted to do something different this year. But he wasn’t sure what…
Like Joe, many managers certainly know that development is important and, like Joe, many managers don’t really want to be coaches – or teachers. Most don’t have much time, their resources are limited and they don’t have all the answers. Instead of trying to force managers down a road many do not want to go, let’s step back and reframe the discussion. Let’s build on what managers already know how to do. And let’s remember that there is another person in this, the person who is supposed to be developing.
Joe looked at the development plan forms. They looked just like project planning forms: they had a goal, a schedule with implementation steps and milestones, and criteria to assess or measure progress. He also noticed a section that asked what the benefits of reaching the development goal would be: the business case. This way there would be a direct connection between development and results – the benefits of engaging in the development. Joe suddenly had an idea. He would build on what he already knew how to do – manage projects.
Implementing a development plan doesn’t have to be very different than implementing any other type of project. So what does managing the project mean? A project manager usually does not get involved in the details and probably won’t have all the answers. The details are the responsibility of the person implementing the project. The project manager does the following:
- Collaborates on formulating the initial plan and on any re-planning
- Ensures that there are necessary resources and support to accomplish the project
- Engages in problem solving to address current and anticipated barriers to progress
- Utilizes regular project status meetings to do these things and to keep track of progress, so that he or she can engage as needed
Picture a typical status meeting. The person in charge of implementation presents or discusses information on status. During the meeting the project manager listens, asks questions, challenges as needed, provides feedback and advice, etc. If the project manager did not do these things (and others) during the status meetings the project might go off track, lose money and fail. Because the project manager is ultimately accountable for results, he or she does not want that to happen.
Now picture a meeting between a manager and employee to discuss the status of the employee’s development plan.
Does the meeting progress in the same way as the status meeting described above? Often the answer is no – even though the same skills are required.
Unfortunately a learning or development situation often seems to evoke the traditional teacher-student relationship. With SSD, the assumption is that both people are adults, not teacher and student. The employee, the project implementer, is capable of learning and taking charge of that learning. The manager is capable of managing and providing various kinds of necessary support and guidance; this happens either directly or indirectly.
Avoid Assumptions – Clarify Expectations
Joe sat back and thought about how he would get started with this idea: he would treat development plans as if they were projects. The employees would be in charge of implementing the projects and he would be the project manager. There were two things he needed to do:
- To explain that he wanted to treat development plans like projects.
- To establish who was going to do what – what he ought to be able to expect of the employees and what the employees ought to be able to expect from him -just as in the beginning of any project. He knew that doing this reduced misunderstanding and conflict. And with less drama, people usually accomplished more.
The first turned out to be easy. He simply explained that:
He wanted to help them develop.
He thought he could be more helpful to them doing what he knew how to do instead of trying to be a teacher or a coach – which he wasn’t sure he knew how to do.
As for the second, Joe thought that the easiest thing to do would be to meet with his employees all at the same time.
The employees would brainstorm answers to two questions:
- What should we reasonably be able to expect of Joe (my manager) during the development process?
- What should Joe (my manager) reasonably be able to expect of me during the development process?
Joe would brainstorm answers to similar questions: what he should reasonably be able to expect of them and what they should reasonably be able to expect of him.
Then they would discuss their answers and come to an agreement on mutual expectations.
Joe knew they would revisit what they’d agreed to and most likely adjust it. But it was a good way to get everything on the table. Joe set the meeting and sent out the question for his employees to think about before the meeting.
For this book, managers and non-managers were asked those questions.
Here are the answers we heard when we asked them what they should reasonably be able to expect from their manager during the development process:
- Express confidence that I (the learner) can do it
- Don’t act like this is a waste of time
- Provide feedback
- Provide resources and introductions to people who can help, if needed
- Meet with me regularly to discuss how things are going
- If I’m stuck, don’t give me the answer; help me figure it out
- Help me stay on track
- Arrange work expectations and/or schedule so that doing the development assignment will not lead to failure on the job
- Don’t punish me for making mistakes so long as the mistakes decrease over time and I don’t keep making the same mistakes.
- Do not believe that failure to learn something equals being a failure
And here are answers from managers and non-managers when asked what their manager should reasonably expect of them (the employee):
- Believes he or she can achieve the development goal.
- If things are not going as expected takes the initiative to identify different possible solutions before coming to me.
- Will not waste my time.
- Willing to accept that resource limitations might alter the goal and/or plans
- Is motivated to accomplish the goal – and knows how to stay motivated
- Is realistic about how well he or she is doing: can assess progress on their own or with input from others
- Is able to provide accurate and up-to-date status reports on his or her development plan status
- Is able to accept feedback from me or appropriate others without getting defensive
- Knows that making mistakes is all right – assuming the mistakes decrease over time and the same mistakes are not repeated.
- Does not believe that failure equals being a failure.
- Manages themselves and their time so that they can do their regular work assignments in addition to the development assignment
To sum up, managers and employees appear to have complementary expectations of each other and each has responsibilities.
Managers most want to see employees doing what effective project implementers do: they take charge, are proactive problems solvers, know where they stand in relation to the plan and milestones, report on that status accurately, accept feedback, and accept that there are limitations in terms of time and other resources.
Employees/learners want managers to manage. They want the managers to: obtain resources and contacts that the employees could not obtain on their own, engage in problem solving with them – not give them the answers, believe they (the employee) can successfully implement the plan (accomplish the development goal) and that the goal is worth accomplishing. Employees also want the development goal and plan to be important enough that the manager is willing to devote time to regular progress reviews. Too many development plans are written only to check off a box on the performance appraisal. This wastes time and other resources and nurtures cynicism.
How do managers and employees make this happen?
Joe and his employees had a productive discussion. He was about to end the meeting when one of his employees asked an important question:
“We’ve made some important agreements,” Susan said, “but we still haven’t talked about how we’re going to make this happen. So, how are we going to do that? I already know we need to have a good plan and measures. But that’s not really enough, is it?”
“We’re going to have to help each other be accountable,” said Joe. “But I think you’re right. There’s probably more to it.”
“Well… if you don’t mind me thinking out loud,” said Susan.
“So here’s an example. We said we didn’t want you to give us the answers. You said you wanted us to take the initiative to come up with different solutions when we run into a problem. How do we make sure that happens?”
“For that one,” said Joe, “I think it’s a matter of just doing it. What I mean is I’m expecting you to come with solutions and you’re expecting me to work with you, but not try to have all the answers – which I don’t have anyway, by the way.”
“Here’s one that’s a little harder,” said Kathleen, another of Joe’s employees. “We said we didn’t want you to treat us like a failure if one of us failed at something. You agreed. So how do we do that?”
The conversation took off from there. Ken, another employee, said, “You have to set realistic goals and time frames instead of thinking you can become an expert overnight.”
Susan said that even if you do that, you can still be treated like a failure if you mess up.
“So how do you know if you’re being treated that way,” asked Joe?
They thought for a minute. Then Kathleen said, “Well, it’s like if you don’t have confidence in us.”
“You mean I should believe you can actually learn whatever it is we’ve agreed on,” asked Joe?
“Well, yes,” said Kathleen. “But more than that.” She thought for a moment. “It’s like there was already a mistake. You’d totally ignore the person or maybe only give them an assignment because no-one else was available. Stuff like that.” She paused again. “Then it feels really personal,” she said, “almost as if it has nothing to do with work. It’s like the person can’t do anything right.”
Everyone was silent.
“Ok,” said Joe, “Sounds like this is a lot more than me being disappointed or even angry that someone messed up. So what do we do to avoid that?”
Ken spoke up. “Well, based on what Kathleen said, it reminds me of that old saying about the difference between what people do and who they are. You need to separate the two.”
“I guess if they’re old sayings, they’re still around because there’s something to them,” said Joe, smiling.
They discussed this more and in the end they agreed that everyone needed to focus on specific behavior – what people do – and resist the temptation to question everything a person did because that person failed in one area. But they also agreed that the person couldn’t keep making the same mistake. He or she needed to figure out what to do differently and act on it.
Separating the person and the behavior became one of the principles they identified. That led to one more principle: being as specific as possible when setting development goals and when formulating feedback and giving it.
Let’s summarize some of the key points from their discussion:
- Making their agreement happen really depends on Joe and his employees helping each other to keep to their agreement by holding each other accountable.
- Being realistic is essential. Only characters in a movie become experts overnight. To apply knowledge and skill effectively the employee still must practice what he or she has learned – whether it is an interpersonal skill or a technical skill. Workshops alone do not “fix” anyone and learning takes time and effort.
- Don’t assume that because someone failed at one task he or she cannot succeed at any task. In other words, do not generalize from one event to everything a person does or might do. Fundamentally, this requires the ability to separate what the person does (their behavior) from who the person is. This last point, the ability to identify and focus on specific behavior, will be an essential element of defining development goals, providing effective feedback, and assessing progress and results. And as we noted in the introduction, it has a direct link to SMART.
Having talked through mutual expectations, Joe and his team were ready to move on to the next steps. They knew this wouldn’t be the last time they talked about these topics, but they hoped that this would be a strong foundation for those discussions.