Leaders don't always get the results they expect, but here's how to do it through a simple phrase.
I watched confidently as my boss examined the work I’d prepared for him. A minute passed, then two. At last, he looked me in the eye and flatly said, “This is not what we agreed.”
I stood there dumbfounded. This was some of my finest work, and I knew it. I’d put my best thinking and most focused effort into it. Not only that – I had gone above and beyond what he’d specifically asked for, and tailored my analysis to consider things he hadn’t even thought of yet! I couldn’t believe he wasn’t thrilled with my brilliant work.
Sound familiar? Whether you identify more with my boss or with me, chances are you've seen this movie before. In fact, it’s not uncommon for leaders to feel like their teams don’t deliver on expectations, or for their team members to feel like their work is underappreciated. Despite both parties’ best intentions, performance falls short of expectations. Why does this happen? More importantly, what can leaders do to get the results they need and show appreciation for their teams’ hard work?
The answer lies in the very words my boss used when I delivered my “brilliant” piece of work. There was a lesson in his words – one that I needed to learn, though I didn’t see it right away. In fact, it took me weeks to get the real message, as he calmly repeated the same phrase time and again: “This is not what we agreed.”
Finally, he sat me down and explained it to me. “Look,” he said, “when I ask you to prepare an analysis in a particular way, it’s for a reason. When you come back with something else, it causes problems because the numbers don’t jibe with the work of others. Can you see how this is a problem?” I had to admit I could. “You’ll notice I always ask for your agreement on your assignments,” he pointed out. He was right about that. Each time he gave me an assignment, he provided clear guidance and asked for my confirmation.
Each time my boss called me out for breaching our agreement, he was practicing an important leadership skill: holding me accountable. And by appealing to the agreement, an objective standard of performance, he was also doing so fairly, in a way that was genuinely respectful. When I didn’t deliver what he expected, he didn’t yell or criticize me. He simply referred to our agreement. The one we had made together.
The key to getting the results that you need as a leader is to stay true to the standard of such agreements. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, reportedly taught this maxim: “As a leader, you don’t get what you expect. You get what you accept.” His point was that when leaders accept performance that is less than their expectations, they necessarily lower their standards, and unwittingly encourage more unsatisfactory work.
Here are three steps to ensure that your team delivers the results you expect. These steps are equally effective whether the assignment is simple or highly complex, tactical or strategic. It also doesn’t matter if you’re assigning work to an individual contributor, or to someone who gets work done through dozens or even thousands of others.
First, be very clear about the outcomes you want.
Whenever possible, use numbers to give dimension to your expectations. Invite questions and clarifications to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Check to make sure that the other person’s understanding matches yours, including deadlines and quality specifications.
Second, get explicit agreement about the assignment.
That doesn’t mean it has to be in writing. In some cases, a verbal agreement will do just fine. And provided the person’s methods are legal, ethical, and tie to your organization’s values, don’t fuss about how they plan to handle the details. Trust that they have what it takes to deliver the results you want; but offer help if needed, and make sure they have the resources to get the job done.
Third, when the deadline arrives, ask for an accounting of the assignment.
Refer to the original agreement. If the work does not conform, simply say “This is not what we agreed.” Explain why. Express confidence that the person can do the job, offer encouragement, and provide additional instruction as needed. Don’t accept work that falls short of the agreement; ask that it be corrected. By the same token, if the work hits the bullseye, be sure to give generous praise for a job well done.
When you follow these steps, you reinforce a culture of integrity and respectfulness, which will produce higher-quality results over time. As your people learn to make and honor explicit agreements – both with you and with one another – everyone learns to trust each other. When the leader appeals to the standard of an agreement, rather than criticizing people, that leader demonstrates respect toward those they lead and the significance of the agreement. What's more, by only accepting work that meets the agreement, the leader ensures that they get what they need.
By the way, this approach to accountability is just as applicable to leaders as it is to their people. Effective leaders facilitate their own accountability, encouraging others to hold them accountable for the commitments they’ve made. By walking their talk, leaders invite others to make accountability a two-way street.
Putting this approach into practice is not difficult, but it does require self-discipline. If you’re unaccustomed to using it, start small. Start practicing with relatively low-risk assignments. As you gain more confidence with the approach, expand it to larger, more important work.
Here’s my call to action: identify one small assignment this week, and practice the three steps of accountability. When necessary, use the powerful and fair phrase, “This is not what we agreed.” My bet is that the results will be magical.