“Do the best you can.”
This line is meant to encourage high performance but actually has the opposite effect. In fact, I believe it directly promotes mediocrity. Don’t believe me? Imagine telling professionals who regularly make life-or-death decisions — say a trauma surgeon or a commercial airline pilot — to do the best they can. For these people, only doing their best isn’t an option, and it shouldn’t be for the rest of us, either.
Leaders, I’m talking to you, because you set the stage for the people you manage. Directing them to perform at “just OK” levels yields “just OK” results. Fortunately, setting high expectations is doable (and no, it doesn’t mean demanding soul-sucking perfection.) Their success (and yours, for that matter) depends on how willing you are to communicate constructively and being honest about what it’ll take to perform a task. Setting high expectations empowers a person to raise their bar, but it also enables you, the leader, to help them lift it. Why is this so critical? Because it demonstrates your belief that people bring more to the table than merely checking tasks off a to-do list.
Here’s how to secure high-performance results by asking more of others (and of yourself.)
1. Build Trust With Candid Concessions
Many moons ago, I worked as a project manager with a construction company. When an unsavory job fell into my lap, I handed it to the foreman responsible for overseeing the project. I said, “There is hardly any budget to work with, the site is a big field of mud, the contractor you have to communicate with is not collaborative, and the schedule is a nightmare. Do the best you can.”
If I had to assign this same project today, I’d frame it much differently. I’d probably say something like: “Yes, this is a challenging site with a difficult contractor, but I know you’re the right man for the job because you’re diplomatic with people in tough situations. The budget is tight, but I’ve seen you succeed with less. You know how to use time, people, and equipment efficiently. In spite of these obstacles, I look forward to seeing the results, knowing you’re the person behind it all.”
“Do the best you can” says little more than “this is your problem now.” So next time you’re tempted to say that, try framing expectations in a positive light that displays your trust and confidence in people. Demonstrating these positive assumptions instills mutual trust, and when they can see how much you value their work and believe in their capabilities, they’ll want to prove you right.
2. Understand That Feedback is a Two-Way Street
When a friend of mine overheard her boss using colorful language on the phone one day, she approached him. “The language you used might not have offended the person on the line, but others in the office could’ve heard it,” she said. “I wanted you to be aware because it could harm their perception of you.”
After thanking my friend for her honesty, the boss lightened his language and made sure to close his door during future calls. He reacted positively and took action because her feedback was both constructive and caring. Note that she didn’t demand that he change. She just asked him to think about it.
Pointing out potentially harmful effects of behavior can spur someone — even your manager — to reconsider the expectations the team holds for them, too. Beyond providing regular, thoughtful feedback to your team, ask yourself: “Am I truly open to feedback about my own performance?” Then, you also need to ensure that employees understand that feedback is a two-way street.
3. Quell Your and Your Team's Self-Doubt
It’s easy to suggest everyone in your office “be better,” but it’s difficult to demand that of yourself. After all, research shows that we’re terrible at judging our own ability and character.
Thirteen years ago, when I left the corporate world to pursue public speaking and consulting, self-doubt crept in and whispered, “What makes you think you can pull this off?” To counter that voice, I wrote down a list of my qualifications. I had 20 years’ experience in construction, nine years in human resources, two years of company ownership, and occasionally dabbled in public speaking.
I realized each experience lent itself to my latest passion pursuit. I did have something unique to offer in the consulting space; I just needed to remind myself of my worth. Construct your own résumé of badassery, and ask your team members to do the same with their résumés. It’ll remind people of their worth and inspire them to produce high-quality work.
Remember, setting high expectations is not about demanding perfection or being unforgiving of mistakes; it’s about setting a message that you have confidence in people’s ability to deliver. Not only will you inspire higher performance, you’ll probably find that their work quality will surpass what you previously thought possible.