Common Leadership Errors: Being Vague and Expecting Perfection

There is no doubt that how results are produced is just as, or more important, than the results themselves.  How work is done, the behaviors people do to produce an outcome, is a driver of long-term success in organizations.  To make this point clear, Dr. Aubrey Daniels is known for often saying “Business is Behavior.”  In his book, Performance Management (Fifth Edition), Aubrey continues this sentiment by saying the following: “Behavior is always relevant to maximizing any organizational result… Managers who understand the importance of behavior can gain a huge competitive advantage,” clearly indicating that the quality and consistency of behaviors inside organizations matter.

The being vague and expecting perfection error is made when leaders are not clear on what behaviors are needed to drive results.  Statements like: “Step it up and add customer value,” “I’m looking for us to be team players,” or “When you get out on the job site, be situationally aware” are all examples of leaders making this error.  This error assumes leaders will get desired or optimized performance out of ambiguity.  That people within the organization will hear a statement such as “We need to raise the bar” and know exactly what to do.  A leader can expect two reactions when being vague: 1) people will nod their head in agreement (and not ask, “what do you mean by that?”) and 2) they will continue old patterns of behavior, whether they are desired or not.

Instead of being vague and expecting perfection, leaders should develop pinpointing skills to clearly communicate what perfect practice looks like.  Pinpointing is being precise or providing a specific description of key behaviors.  In more generic terms, it’s clarifying expectations: what do you want people to do or say under certain conditions.  To take one of the examples above, instead of saying “be situationally aware,” a pinpointed description of what the desired behavior might look like is: “When you arrive to the job site, walk the perimeter of the job and use our hazard wheel to identify and write down all the potential hazards in the work area.” 

Pinpointing the critical behaviors sets people up for success.  It also allows for better training and coaching of skills and helps create consistency inside organizations.  It’s a foundational skill for anyone in a leadership position.  While being vague and asking people to “Step up” might be easy for a leader to say, it’s largely ineffective, producing the potential for rework and frustration.  Behaviors produce business results.  Developing pinpointing skills will help make leaders more effective and drive company success.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.