Setting clear expectations with your line manager

I mentioned in last week’s episode on asking for feedback about the particular case of asking for feedback from your line manager, given that this can sometimes be challenging but your relationship with your line manager is probably one of the most important you have at work. This week, I want to go into this in a little more depth, with some ideas both for line managers and for their direct reports about setting clear expectations.

What I’ll be covering includes:

  1. Asking for feedback from your boss (and actually the other way round too)
  2. Giving feedback – both positive and constructive
  3. Understanding each other’s strengths and values
  4. How to align when we’re coming from different places – the art of compromise
  5. Asking for feedback from your boss (and actually the other way round too)

First up, asking for feedback on the line manager-direct report relationship. Now as I mentioned last week, this is a crucial work relationship for anyone with a boss. Your boss has a lot of influence over your success at work – they typically set your objectives, make judgements about your performance, have conversations with you about your personal development and your next career steps. That’s a lot of power.

So as a direct report, it’s important to know how you’re doing and you’d be right to ask. In doing it, you’re also going more front foot which means to some extent, you’re levelling that power difference. Do that, do it well, do it frequently enough and you won’t have nasty surprises lying in wait at the end of a performance period, because you’ll already know and have acted on what your boss expects.

When you’re asking for feedback, remember to first be clear on why you’re asking for feedback and on what – is it about how you’re doing within the team, at meetings, in meeting objectives, and producing quality work. Whatever it is, know what you’re asking about.

Secondly, ask questions well, be specific, not vague. If you feel there’s something in particular you’d like your boss’s view on, be prepared to ask them. Next up, listen well and practice emotional management. There’s nothing like feedback for hijacking us emotionally, particularly from someone whose opinion is important to us at work and particularly someone who can actually influence our success at work. So be prepared to go into high alert and possibly ‘defend and overexplain’ mode when you’re given constructive feedback by your boss. You can avoid this though by taking notes and giving yourself enough time to digest the feedback before responding, instead of thanking your boss for the information they’ve given you.

Finally, when you’re ready, let your boss know what you’re going to do based on the views they’ve given. Make sure you make the link between what your boss said and what you’re going to do as a result – this shows that you’re listening, that you care what your boss thinks and that you’re willing to push to improve and learn.

Now for the bosses out there – how about asking for feedback from your direct. Questions like ‘How can I best support you?’ ‘What resources might you need to meet your objectives that you don’t feel you have right now?’ ‘What’s the best way from your point of view to communicate – frequency, mode of communication and so on?’ ‘What type of management style works best for you – close at hand, more hands off, checking in, what’s your expectation of me?’. Bosses that do this will foster a sense of psychological safety within the team because those questions show humility and some vulnerability and that can encourage directs to be more open and honest about how they’re doing.

  1. Giving feedback – both positive and constructive

Rolling on with bosses, here’s a practical tool for giving feedback to your direct reports, when it’s asked for and also when you need to.  Let me introduce you to BID and BIRD.

BID feedback you use when you want to give recognition for something having gone well. This will reinforce the type of behaviour and performance you’re looking for from individuals in your team. BID stands for Behaviour-Impact-Do more of.

Behaviour is the behaviour you’ve seen that you want to recognise and praise – ‘I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated your contribution in the team meeting today…it was on point: succinct, practical and helpful for everyone else to understand where your department is at’.

Impact relates to how that affects others – ‘In my view, what you did in the team meeting will have reassured everyone that this very important project is on track and also what they can do to help and support and that will help the team meet its overall objectives.’

Do more of is explaining how someone can go to the next level – ‘What I’d love is to see you present at more team meetings because I think it’s a strength area. I’d also like to get you a slot at the divisional meet next month to showcase what your team has achieved with the project so far.’

That’s BID feedback.  No shit sandwich or benefit sandwich if you don’t like swearing. Sorry. Just clear, business-related and growth-focused.

BIRD feedback is constructive feedback, for when something hasn’t gone according to plan and you need to let one of your team know. It’s a similar but slightly tweaked version of BID and it stands for Behaviour, Impact, Risk and Do differently.

Behaviour is as before but something you’d prefer not to see so much of or any of – ‘I notice that there’s been some situations where you haven’t got back to customers according to our service level agreement.’

Impact is the effect this has had – ‘That’s led to me getting some unhappy customers escalating their complaints and me needing to get involved’

Risk is new and it’s the wider risks to the direct report and the wider team if relevant – ‘What’s happened has affected the overall team metrics and that’s hit our reputation within the division.’

Do differently is what you’d like to change – ‘So I’d like to talk to you about what needs to change for you to be able to meet our customer SLA and not for customer complaints to reach me. So can we explore that please?’

BIRD is clear, again there’s no shit sandwich, but you may want to start by saying that you’re committed to getting a positive solution and that you’ll give your colleague the support they need to get there.  That doesn’t dilute the message, instead it shows positive intent and a commitment to their success.

BID and BIRD make it clear what your expectations are as a boss and they give you something concrete to measure progress against when you next check in on someone’s performance.

  1. Understanding each other’s strengths and values

This next point is so often underdone in the line manager-direct report relationship. It’s rare that we talk about what we value and what’s important to us in work relationships, in our expectations of working styles and quality. But when you create that sense of safety in a team by open, curious, humble and vulnerable, it makes it much easier to have that kind of conversation.

My advice: as early as possible in the working relationship, share your strengths and share your values. Tell your boss, tell your direct report what’s important to you, how you stay energised and what the no-nos are when it comes to a working relationship. Here’s an example:

‘My strengths are Collaboration, Empathy and Leading – I love working with my team to get the job done together (that’s Collaboration), I’m always here to listen and to understand the world from where you’re experiencing it (that’s Empathy) and I get a big kick out of taking us all on a journey towards meeting our team objectives (that’s Leading).

When it comes to my values, number 1 is honesty and openness – I don’t care that you’ve made a mistake or that something’s gone wrong, those are always good opportunities to learn. But when it’s covered up, that’s more of a problem. So whatever goes wrong, please let me know so we can be sure to fix it quick for the customer and so that we can learn from it. My number 2 value is responsibility – I feel super responsible for the success of the team overall, and anything that might get in the way of that will be a concern to me. So do please let me know if you notice anything that might help us or stop us from achieving our goals.’

That’s short and sharp and boss to direct but hopefully it illustrates the value of sharing something personal about our expectations and you might also want to share why – where do those values of honesty and responsibility come from, what life experiences have you had that made them so important. Stories like that are so relatable and can really deepen a connection and help other people understand why your expectations are as they are.

  1. How to align when we’re coming from different places – the art of compromise

Chances are, you’ll have that conversation around strengths and values and you’ll find some things in common and some things that are very different. And that’s ok. At least it’s ok if you work out how to make it ok, because if you have a boss who values close supervisory working, as a result checking in and checking on work progress and quality, and a direct report who values independence and being left to pretty much get on with it, there may be an issue.

My advice: find those points of difference and work out a compromise solution where you’ll both be happy enough rather than slogging on with neither party being satisfied that things are going as they’d like.

The same is true of strengths differences – you’re unlikely to share many or any of the same top strengths, so work out how you can get the best from each of you while still respecting the other person’s strengths, values and contribution. It all comes from having an open, honest dialogue and not being fearful of it being a ‘difficult conversation’. The labels of difficult conversation or challenging or courageous conversation while they capture the emotion, they can create barriers of their own. So just see them as a natural part of work life. It’s not all a bed of roses and that’s ok.

So those are my tips for this episode on setting clear expectations both ways between line managers and their direct reports. Till next time, stay strong.