The Most Powerful Technique Leaders Use to Communicate Expectations Clearly

If you lead a team of people, you’ve almost certainly had the experience of your team failing to meet your expectations at some point. Want to change this? Use this highly effective technique to create crystalline understanding around your expectations, every time. 

bookends in communication

If you lead a team of people, you’ve almost certainly had the experience of your team failing to meet your expectations at some point. Maybe it’s infrequent, or perhaps it’s become your default mode. Either way, it can be tempting to assume it’s because they didn't put in enough effort, they’re incapable of performing at the level you need, or perhaps they just ‘don’t get it.’

But what if the problem is none of those? What if the gap is a direct result of how you communicate your expectations?

There is a simple, yet highly effective technique leaders use to create crystalline understanding around their expectations, every time. It’s called bookending and it is one of the most powerful tools I’ve gained from the Level 52 curriculum.

Here’s how bookending works

When setting expectations-- or providing some course-corrective feedback-- cut through any assumptions by pausing the conversation to draw parameters around what your expectations ARE, and what they ARE NOT. It’s like setting goalposts (or bookends) that define what will nail it, and what is out of bounds.

There are several ways you can approach this. Here are 3 that I have found to be especially effective:

1.  Impress / Disappoint

Here’s what I will see that will impress (or excite) me.
And here’s what I would see that would disappoint me.

2.  Nail it / Miss is

Here’s what customers will say/do if you nail it.
And here’s what we’d see or hear from customers if we miss the mark.

3.  Success / Failure

These are the outcomes I would consider a success, and how we’ll measure them.
And this is what I would consider a failure in this situation.

This technique is extremely powerful if you tend to use nebulous terms to motivate your team. Some common examples:

"I need to see more from you."

"You need to up your game."

"We need to crush it this quarter."

"I want to see you run with this.”

All of these leave a wide berth for interpretation and what ‘run with it’ or ‘crush it’ means to me, may be very different from what it means to you. No one is right, and no one is wrong- we just hold different perspectives on their meaning. Therefore, when it comes time to introduce some accountability, it becomes very difficult because the expectations and rules of the game are muddy, creating confusion instead of clarity.

Bookending is like compound interest

The more people in the room that are familiar with bookending, the more powerful the outcomes. The best leaders aren’t the only ones using this technique; they also teach it to their people and actively invite team members to bookend things whenever there is so much as a whiff of an assumption in the space.

A great example of how bookending diverted disaster was shared with us recently by an alumnus who had learned this technique in our Accelerated Leader Program. Their manager had come to them to share details about an exciting new strategic initiative the company was undertaking. When she heard the words, “and we want you to own this new project,” her mind immediately went to all the late nights and weekends it was going to require if she was indeed going to ‘own it.’

Then, she asked to bookend what ‘own it’ means. Turns out, they could not have been on more opposite pages. To her manager, evidence of her ‘owning it’ would be how well she was delegating the work, recruiting the resources she needed, and seeking feedback along the way. What would indicate she was NOT owing it? You guessed it, working late nights and weekends. In the eyes of her manager, that would indicate she was trying to do it all by herself, rather than stepping into the space of truly managing (i.e. owning) the project. Bookending for the win.

The easiest way to leverage the bookending technique

Since bookending is an element of the Level 52 curriculum, we have some resources to help you introduce the concept to your team and practice it during your next meeting. Click here to access a free bookending resource and a primer video that will have you and your team bookending like pros in no time.

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