All I Have In This World Is My Word, And I Don’t Break It For Nobody
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You might think that a quote from the cult classic Scarface is a poor way to start a blog post about leadership. I mean, Tony Montana isn’t exactly a beacon of good management. You probably shouldn’t look up to him in any way, shape or form.
But its a good quote all the same, because really, if you’re in a leadership position, one of the things that you should value the most is your word.
If you can’t keep it, than you should have kept your mouth shut in the first place.
Honesty Is Actually The Best Policy
I’m a firm believer in being honest and straightforward when communicating with anyone. It doesn’t matter if they are a general colleague, someone who you are directly responsible for or even your own boss, you should tell it like it is. Of course, nothing puts an honesty policy to the test like making a huge mistake, so when I look back, it seems to me like I’m pretty consistent about that sort of thing.
There are a bunch of benefits to being consistently straightforward and honest, but one of the most valuable is that its a natural trust builder. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people will necessarily like what you have to say, but that’s another thing entirely.
Regardless, if people know that you are transparent, regardless of the situation, then they know what to expect and don’t have to worry about spending cognitive resources deciphering what you really meant. That means more mental power dedicated to actually getting things done, which can only be a good thing.
Interestingly enough, setting the correct expectations can actually be quite difficult, even if you’re being straightforward and honest.
The best possible situation is when you are able to supply full, unadulterated information, clear in purpose and unambiguous. In this case, there is little to no room for assumptions, and if the other party misinterpreted the information given, it is much easier to clear things up, as the misinterpretation is usually pretty obvious. That doesn’t mean its easy to clear up misconceptions, just easier. People are complicated animals after all.
Other situations are more challenging.
For example, if there is a situation and you are unable to provide all of the information to the appropriate parties (maybe you don’t know, maybe its sensitive), then its entirely possible and likely that the people involved will fill in the blanks with their own assumptions. In this case there is little you can do other than be as clear as possible that this part of the picture is fuzzy and unclear, and to ensure that as soon as you know more, they know more. The quicker you learn and disseminate information, the better. It leaves less time for assumptions to fester.
The last case is quite possibly the most painful.
Sometimes you set expectations, that through no fault of your own, end up being wrong.
Expect The Unexpected
To be clear, if you can do anything at all to prevent incorrect expectations being set, you should do it. Expectations that are incorrectly set and then not met are easily one of the most damaging things to the professional happiness of a person, and can result in all sorts of other negative side effects like loss of trust (which is horrible), loss of motivation and a growing desire to be somewhere else.
A growing desire to be somewhere else is a dangerous thing. In comparison, it is normal and healthy for your people to keep themselves well informed about the job market and opportunities available to them, and you should do what you can to encourage that behaviour. Remember, you serve the overlapping interests of your people and your organization, but if push comes to shove, your people come first. This doesn’t mean that you are encouraging people to leave; quite the contrary, you want them to stay because they want to stay, not because they can’t go anywhere else.
If the worst happens and the wrong expectations have been set for some reason, then you should do everything in your power to ensure that those expectations are met.
I mean, obviously if the expectations are ridiculous then you’ve clearly screwed up, and you need to have a much longer, harder look at your own behaviour as a leader. There will be damage in this case, and you will have to do your best to mitigate it.
If the expectations are reasonable though, and your actions lead to them being set (miscommunication, poorly worded statements, communicating information that you believed to be true but wasn’t), then you should move heaven and earth to follow through and hold true to your word.
Even if it costs you personally.
Consider it the price paid for a valuable lesson learned.
At the end of the day, as a leader, you need to be acutely aware of the impact that you can have as a result of words that come out of your mouth.
Do not underestimate the damage that you can cause as a result of incorrectly set expectations not being met.
Its trite, but with great power comes great responsibility.
“Great power” is probably overselling it though, but the phrase “with mediocre power comes great responsibility” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.