I’m betting that everyone reading this understands the importance of knowing what your boss expects from you. Duh. The problem lies in the assumptions we make and the lack of thoroughness on this front. Bosses rarely spell out exactly what they expect from the subordinate, and the subordinate too often falls short of fully comprehending. Research for my (bestselling!) new release, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization, included interviews with over 200 pairs of bosses and subordinates to understand just how well the boss’s expectations were understood by the subordinate (and vice versa). In over 80 percent of the pairings there were material breaches.
To close the comprehension gap, ask the right questions of your boss, ones that tease out the nuances of what they’re really expecting (and that help them better articulate it). Those questions are the ones that follow; specifically, nine of them. Ask your boss these questions even if you think you have a good handle on what’s expected of you. They’re proven to be extremely clarifying and to drive full alignment on expectations between boss and subordinate.
1. “What does good performance look like? Great performance?”
Asking about the difference between good and great on anything (performance, leadership, risk taking, etc.) is extremely clarifying and helps you understand exactly what great looks like to your boss. What you thought was great may actually only be meeting base expectations in the eyes of your boss.
2. “Let’s assume I’ll get great results—what behaviors do you want/not want to see as I achieve those results?”
Bosses rarely spell out cultural expectations, i.e. how they want you to achieve the results that you do.
3. “What business metrics/goals are the most important to you and why?”
The “why” part is magic here. For example, you knew your boss cared about you hitting your profit target. But what if you learned that your boss missed his profit target a few times in the past and nearly lost his job because of it? You get the idea.
4. “These are my top priorities—are they consistent with yours?”
Bosses want to know that their overall agenda is being supported and that you’re putting the right resources on the right things.
5. “This is how I’m spending my time—does it feel like it’s supporting what’s most important?”
This one is similar to the above, but is intended for bosses who are more detail oriented and for scenarios when business results are falling short. It’s especially in these times that the boss can’t help but wonder how the subordinate is spending their days and whether or not it’s on the right things. Earn credit for at least putting your effort in the right places by asking this question.
6. “What measures does your boss most frequently discuss with you?”
Just like you care about what your boss focuses on with you, so should you care about what their boss focuses on. Knowing that further clarifies what’s important to your boss, which you can then work to overdeliver on, which is basic to forging a great relationship.
7. “What specifically will get you promoted?”
This assumes your boss cares about getting promoted, of course. It’s a powerful question because it goes beyond the obvious answer, “Great results will get me promoted.” It helps flesh out the full picture and nuances of what will make your boss look really good. That’s an itch you want to scratch and an opportunity to overdeliver on expectations.
8. “What should I stop, start, and continue doing to better succeed?”
This gets to the thoroughness of understanding your boss’s expectations and helps them articulate what may be bothering them about your shortfalls (as well as help you identify what’s working).
9. “Think of the most effective employee you’ve ever had working for you. What made them so effective?”
Bosses have unarticulated biases, like we all do. Even if you’re delivering the goods, they may subconsciously be expecting you to deliver results in the mold of a favored employee. It would help to know that.
9 questions. 100% clarity. It’s worth the effort.
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