The impact of clarity on performance

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Written by Leigh Chattington and Richard Graham on 12 November 2014

‘Do you understand?’ – A question often asked by leaders at the end of a conversation about goals to be achieved, standards to meet or how to execute a piece of work. However, unless you’re leading a team of mind readers, this question won’t be helpful in getting people on the same page. The question leaders really want the answer to is: ‘Do you have the same understanding as me?’

It seems obvious to say that people need to know what is expected of them, and in a world of objectives, metrics and goals, we might think we have all the tools we need to achieve this. However, a startling number of projects fail, or are delayed because people are unclear on what is expected of them.

In their book, ‘Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution’, authors Davis, Frechette and Boswell note that only 30 per cent of strategic initiatives fully succeed on time. One factor that increases success in the other 70 per cent is to ensure that people fully understand the goal they are working towards.

So how do we make sure our people are clear and aligned with the direction the team is heading and their part in this? Richard Beckhard’s hierarchy of activities gives leaders four areas to consider when setting out to achieve alignment and mobilise people to deliver results.

1. The goal

Call it a goal, mission, strategy… whatever you call it, just have one! And tell people what it is. In her article, for Harvard Business Press, ‘Define the Future’, Linda Hill writes that a clear goal ‘imbues your work with purpose, fosters commitment, reduces conflict, and helps you and your team deal with unforeseen change’. Who wouldn’t want to work towards something like that?

Here’s a quick test to help you find out if you and your team are aligned. Write down your team’s main goal or purpose in one sentence, and then ask your team members to do the same. Assess the gap. If there is a wide variation of answers then you know you’ve some work to do to get people united towards a common purpose.

Of course, setting a clear goal for the team over a period of time, is only a part of it. The team needs to see their leader continue to work towards the goal every day rather than see them reacting to the everyday pressures that arise. If the leader doesn’t work towards the goal, why should anyone else?

2. Team responsibilities

Ensure each team member knows what they are responsible for delivering and the importance of their individual contribution in achieving the overall goal. Ask yourself the following questions to help you prepare for a conversation with each of your team members: ‘What’s the impact on the whole team if this individual delivers their part?’ and ‘What are the consequences if this individual doesn’t deliver to the right quality or to deadline?’ You don’t need to be over prescriptive by telling people exactly how to do their jobs, just make sure people are clear on the role that they play as part of the team.

3. Clear process

Nothing wastes more time and energy than arguing over the right way to do things. Make sure all team members understand the expected ways of working and how they fit together to support each another. With well-defined norms in place, the team can focus on delivering results.

4. What standards of behaviour are expected of us?

Okay, perhaps we were wrong – there’s one thing that has the potential to be an even bigger time waster than confusion over processes: negative team conflict. To be clear, some conflict is good. Healthy disagreement about the task, process or product can be the crucible for innovation, but personality clashes and ego battles can be the anti-thesis to high performance. Make sure you role model the standards of behavior you expect and provide feedback when these are not met. Team building activities run by you or an outside facilitator can support the team in becoming a more cohesive working unit.

Research done by Hay Group across teams that reported to 26,000 managers from 437 different organisations, revealed that only 33 per cent of team members felt they had the clarity they need. This group showed better performance, was more ready to take on new challenges and had lower absenteeism and turnover.

So, communicate the goal, set clear responsibilities, define processes and agree team behaviours… then get out of the way and let your team members perform.

About the author
Leigh Chattington and Richard Graham are part of the leadership, learning and organisational development team at Bloomberg

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