Teamwork. Good communicator. Adaptable. Forward thinker. Active listener.
In our line of work, we hear these words all the time. They are the words we have come to use so frequently when talking about how our organizations and teams need to operate, we could list them in our sleep.
In coaching conversations, I hear clients say, “I told my direct report that I need her to be a better listener, but I continue to have others on the team come to me and say that she still is so hardheaded in meetings.” When working with leaders I hear, “In our one to one I shared with him that I need him to be a better communicator, but I haven’t seen any changes since then.” When in trainings, “I feel like I have done everything I can, but she isn’t making any progress. I have told her 100 times that I need her to be a team player. I am starting to wonder if she can’t do it or if she just doesn’t care.” These conversations come from individuals who are incredibly well intentioned and really wanting their team members to succeed but are growing frustrated in the lack of results they are seeing. They usually follow up the discussion with, “I am so frustrated. Do you have any suggestions?”
The good news is, I do. And it’s a suggestion that is the foundation for almost all the work that we do. In order to see real behavior change in our teams, we owe them the gift of specificity. Most often, it’s not that our team members don’t want to make the changes we are requesting or to do a good job, they just don’t know how to. And that is because we use words that are so broad, open for interpretation and well…generic.
If I hear the words, “I need you to do a better job communicating with your team members.”, I now know I need to do a better job, but I don’t know HOW to do a better job. Leaving me likely to do more of or less of what I already know about communicating. But in all likelihood, I need to be doing things I am not already doing – or less of things I am doing that I don’t realize are making me tough to communicate with. Adding just a few additional, strategic minutes to our conversations can make all the difference in seeing the changes that we are seeking.
A conversation starter like, “We’ve discussed the need to increase your communication skills before, but today I’d like to talk about what those behaviors are that make for a good communicator on our team and share with you some specific actions that can help you in this growth.”, is a powerful way to bring the clarity our teams need to succeed.
An even more effective way can be to ask them to share with you what specific behaviors they think make for a good communicator. Give them a few minutes to think about those specific behaviors and then discuss. This allows you to get a better sense of how they see the skill you are asking them to develop and helps you see where the gaps are so you can be more effective in their development of that skill. It also gives you the opportunity to keep the conversation on a high note, encouraging things currently well done while still giving clear direction.
One last note. The goal here is specificity but in the beginning, you are very likely to hear more generic words to describe the behaviors you need them to develop.
“What does good communication look like to you?”
If this happens (which it is likely to), ask them to define what that means to them. Keep digging until you move them from descriptors, “effective communication” to behaviors “doesn’t interrupt people while they are speaking.” The main goal is for the person to leave the conversation with a clear understanding of the specific behaviors they are doing well and those specific behaviors you need to see changes in.
Time and time again, this single shift, moving from the frustrating and generic to the specific and impactful, makes one of the biggest differences for the leaders we work with. If you have found yourself repeatedly asking your team members to make changes, but you fail to see those changes take place, consider this shift in delivery. My guess is that you will see, like so many of our leaders, that specificity is the key to their success, and yours!