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Really? That’s What You Meant? The Importance of Shared Definitions, Expectations, & Assumptions

So often in the workplace, we think that everyone is relatively on the same page; however, it is probably more accurate to assume that it’s like the bar scene from the first Star Wars movie—aliens from every different galaxy, each with their own conceptual frameworks and languages (not to mention ray guns!). Unless we take the time to really get a sense of whether or not we are working from some common ground, we can frequently find ourselves at odds.

Sample scenario #1: Steve says to Tim, his direct report, “Hey, Tim, can you get these engineering specs for the Acme project done by Friday at noon?” “Sure, no worries,” says Tim. By the time Steve gets around to opening the file at 4:45 on Friday afternoon, he is horrified to see that Tim’s view of the project, the scope of the specs needed, and the level of detail are all too casual. “Rats,” Steve mumbles to himself, “I may have to write that guy up.”

Sample scenario #2: Gabriela makes it a point to celebrate everyone’s birthday on her team. Cake in the lunchroom, shiny balloons, and a card that everyone signs are always part of the package. She hires Emily and notes that Emily’s birthday occurs in two weeks, so Gabriela sets the standard procedure into place, knowing that this will help Emily feel welcome. When Emily arrives at work that morning, she sees all the party stuff and runs out of the office in tears. Gabriela later finds out that Emily’s mother died on her birthday last year (and it just so happens that Emily is diabetic and can’t eat the cake anyway).

Why will this help me at work? Without clear expectations, shared assumptions, and defined commitments, we often get confused about where work is at, where it’s going, and who’s responsible for what. Add satellite locations, language, ethnic cultures, departmental subcultures, and generational differences, just to name a few, and you’ve got a lot of possibilities for misunderstanding.

Why is this so difficult at times? First, we cannot (nor should we) check and challenge every assumption. Second, understanding is different from agreement—too often we start to defend our position or logic before we have truly listened to the other. Third, it sometimes feels like it takes more time to be clear about our communication, so we’re tempted to just plunge ahead and clean up any potential mess later.

Your frank self-assessment:

  • How many times in the last ninety days have you been puzzled about why some communication with a team member went thud? Can you examine what your contributions might have been to not being clear?
  • Do you have a tendency to carefully construct your logical reasons why people should shift their perspective, and then find yourself frustrated or disappointed when they didn’t?
  • When is the last time you asked for feedback about your patterns of making assumptions or not being clear in your expectations?

My tips:

  • There is an alternative to always chasing people down to get what you need. Don’t participate in either sending or receiving “squishy” language (like “I’ll try …,” or “Sure, I’ll look into it”). Bring focused awareness to making sure that commitments are stated clearly in terms of task, timeline, ownership, and responsible party.
  • When in doubt, ask (without a negative edge, please). Sometimes we are genuinely surprised as to how someone else can have a completely different interpretation of what we thought was a basic shared concept.
  • To stay lighthearted, be on the lookout for humorous examples of misunderstandings. When I worked for a European company, they sent over a batch of marketing materials that were all printed with the slogan, “We put the ordinary into the extraordinary.” After we had a good laugh, we proceeded to design our own.

Action for traction:

  • Find a friendly colleague and ask him or her to rate you on the following qualities: capability to deliver clear expectations, ability to be curious about shared definitions, giving and getting firm commitments.
  • What are the biggest unclear mutual concepts or language for you or your team at work? Often these fall into clichés like: deliverables, quality service, prompt action, strategic planning, and so on. Make a list, and work through them to create specifics.
  • Remember that relying too much on either intellect or emotion seldom brings others along with us. Too much emotional heat, and often others argue or withdraw—not enough, and it is a dry discourse.

Baked-in benefits:

  • A commitment to continuous improvement in this area means that we assume positive intent when we hit a snag, and therefore we open up the conversation, rather than close it down.
  • Being curious rather than judgmental (“Help me understand …”) reduces tension and disconnection.
  • Enhancing the skill of active listening produces better outcomes and stronger relationships.

Excerpt From: Flip Brown. “Balanced Effectiveness at Work. How to Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor without Driving Yourself Nuts.”  Published by: Starr Farm Press