Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Clarifying Expectations

Typical Scene: Supervisor asks employee to take on X project with a deadline approximately six weeks from now.

This is such a typical scene that it really doesn't seem that there is much variation in how the story can go from there, right?  Wrong.  Remember those children's books where you make a choice and then the story progresses from there?  Well let's examine just a couple of ways this typical scenario could go.

Scenario 1:  Sometime in the next 72 hours the supervisor stops by the office and asks the employee for a status update on the project.  Either...

(a)...the employee has neatly drafted an project plan and happily shares this with the supervisor, or

(b)...the employee says something vague to the effect of "it is on target" and wonders why the supervisor is micromanaging the project.  

What is going on in these two very different reactions to the same exact question about the same project?  

From a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) perspective, we are working in the Judging/Perceiving dichotomy where a person who has a preference for Judging is pushing for closure, making the plan, working the plan, and closing out the project well before the deadline.  The person who has a preference for Perceiving is pushing for more information, looking at all options, processing information in his or her head, and closing out the project just before the deadline to insure that all relevant information is considered.

In (a) the supervisor and employee are both exhibiting a preference for Judging.  (Obviously, one might be exhibiting a learned behavior based on prior work experience or prior experience with the other.  For purposes of these examples, we'll assume people are operating in their preference.)  Since both are exhibiting the same preference, they both have the same definition of how to work the project.

In (b) the supervisor is exhibiting a preference for Judging and the employee is exhibiting a preference for Perceiving.  Since the two are exhibiting opposite preferences there is likely to be tension.  In addition, the supervisor will probably assume the employee does not know what to do, does not have a good work ethic, or is procrastinating.  The employee will probably assume the supervisor is micromanaging the project, doesn't trust the employee to do the project correctly, or is harassing the employee to try to get them to quit.  

How could the rampant run up the inference ladder have been prevented in (b)?  By clarifying expectations up front.  Here are a few clarifying questions that help with J/P dichotomy differences.  

From the Employee:
  • The project is due six weeks from now, are there any intermediate benchmarks I need to know about?
  • When would you like to see a draft?
  • How often would you like project reports?
From the Supervisor:
  • When can we meet to discuss your plan for tackling the project?
  • I would like to see a draft in three weeks - does that work given your current workload?
  • Could you give me a quick Red/Yellow/Green progress report weekly to let me know of any issues that may come up that require my attention?
Simple questions really.  As long as you recognize that your definition of the word "deadline" may not mean the same thing as the person with whom you are speaking.

Scenario 2: Three weeks later the employee turns the project into the supervisor, completely finished and professionally superb, but the employee has not completed the assignment in the way that the supervisor had wanted it done.  The supervisor may...

(a)...Finish the project from scratch in the next three weeks.
(b)...Return the project to the employee bleeding red ink.
(c)...Return the project to the employee with general notes on format, possible additional areas of research, and possible things to incorporate.
(d)...Return the project to the employee with two words "Let's Talk."

Here we are working on the MBTI Sensing/Intuition Dichotomy.  People with a preference for Sensing are the detail-oriented, data-driven technicians (a and b).  People with a preference for Intuition are the big-picture, idea-generating generalists (c and d).  In all of the options, if the employee and the supervisor have different preferences, the supervisor's choice will cause frustration and disengagement on the part of the employee.

How can we clarify expectations up front to prevent these types of conflict?

The Employee Could:
  • Identify possible outcomes and put together a list of initial clarifying questions after reviewing the project and e-mail them to the supervisor within 72 hours of receiving the assignment.  
  • Run through an outline with the supervisor within a week to make sure the employee understands all facets of the project.  
  • Ask to meet with the supervisor before turning in the completed project to discuss the results and ask questions and make notes on your "draft" when the supervisor shakes his or head or starts to fidget in a frustrated manner.
While an employee with a Judging preference may have a general tendency to do these things, they are great tactic for an employee with a Perceiving preference to adopt and incorporate, especially when working with a new supervisor or a new type of project.

The Supervisor Could:
  • Follow up the conversation with a written e-mail outlining the main points to be covered in the project.
  • Direct the employee to a prior completed project to use for format.
  • Ask the employee to submit an outline early in the process for your review so you can spot deviations early.
Okay, that's two possible scenarios and six possible outcomes.  What other scenarios can you think of and the possible outcomes that could result?  What other ways can you think of to clarify expectations early in the process to avoid frustration and conflict later on?