Ask Harry #12: How can I reduce the level of frustration in my job?

I often get asked this question by students and executives in my classes and leadership talks, and the reality is that even if you enjoy your job and your career is going well, there are times when you will get frustrated. After reflecting on times that I personally have gotten frustrated, I realized that the usual cause of my frustration was that I made assumptions. I ASSUMED that what I was asking someone or the team to do was clear and that they had agreed to do it. AHHHH, that was the mistake! (Remember the saying about assumptions? I probably shouldn’t include it in a post, but it isn’t good 😉)

As a result of realizing that most of my frustrations were caused by making assumptions, I decided the answer was to try to find ways to reduce the number of assumptions (you may not be able to eliminate assumptions, but you can definitely minimize them). So here is what I decided to do: Beginning many years ago, both in my various positions at Baxter, and now on numerous boards and my classes at Northwestern Kellogg, I decided to replace the use of assumptions with a FOUR STEP PROCESS that works remarkably well. I will summarize the steps and then explain each step:

  1. Set clear expectations
  2. Clearly communicate the expectations over and over and over again
  3. Hold one another accountable
  4. Clearly explain the consequences (both positive and negative)

As a result of realizing that most of my frustrations were caused by making assumptions, I decided the answer was to try to find ways to reduce the number of assumptions.

Okay, here we go:

1) Set clear expectations

As a leader, I do not need to be dictatorial. I will gather input from the team, take their thoughts into account, and then make the final decision. I will make sure that expectations are CLEAR and leave nothing to someone’s imagination. I will even take the time to make sure the expectations makes sense to the team.

2) Clearly communicate the expectations over and over and over again

Studies have shown that the average person needs to hear something several times before they have really heard and understood it. When I am asked if we should communicate face to face, over the phone, through email or text or by video or newsletter, I usually respond yes, yes, and definitely yes. I have learned from my military friends the power of what I believe they call “play back,” where the person receiving the communication is required to repeat back what they heard to minimize the chance of misunderstanding. By the way, this step requires EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION. Again, that may sound obvious, but that would also be an ASSUMPTION 😉. Just the other day I received an email from someone that took 15 minutes to read, and it read like a mystery novel!!! The key to effective communication is to make it short and clear.

3) Hold one another accountable

This is sometimes hard for leaders to do because they may not want to come across overly harsh or unreasonable. However, IF you have set clear expectations and have clearly communicated the expectations, why is it unreasonable to hold one another accountable? My personal goal is not to surprise people. If I surprise someone, that usually means that the expectation or communication was not clear. I try to make things so clear that if someone says that they are “surprised,” I can reply with a clear conscience: “I am surprised that you are surprised!” 😉

4) Clearly explain the consequences (both positive and negative)

It is critical to include this step. If we set the expectation that we will hold one another accountable, but there are no consequences, I think we are headed for exactly what we are trying to avoid: frustration. If we are successful in achieving the expectation, make sure to award the team that made it happen, and if unsuccessful, the team should not be surprised by the negative consequences.

Give this FOUR STEP PROCESS a try, and let me know what you think!