Communicate expectations

Nov. 2, 2010

After you get the hang of it, straight talk offers a lot of opportunity. The law of diminishing dedication holds that malaise develops when employees aren’t challenged, inspired partners in their own fate. For most, purpose and enthusiasm have the shelf life of sushi. So I developed the four-step Ask/Tell Technique to get them to open up. It keeps managers’ and employees’ expectations in line so there are no surprises. This is how it works:

Step 1 — Ask: “What are your expectations?” Know your team members’ needs, desires and expectations — for their job and their career. Do you know what your people value most? Is it making more money? A promotion? Meaningful work? Time off for family?

Relationships, personal and professional, break down if they’re taken for granted, if we focus exclusively on our own needs. In business, this is called “turnover.” Don’t kid yourself, turnover is always about employees’ unmet needs. Ask them what they need from you and from the organization, and then do what you can to give it to them.

Step 2 — Tell: “Here are my expectations.” Do your people know exactly what’s expected of them? If there’s a chance you’re not on the same page, don’t wait until the end of the book. Get clear by committing your expectations (whether operating-plan-related or task-oriented) to paper and defining how you’ll measure them. Then ask employees to sign off, literally or figuratively. This kind of detail prevents crossed wires and builds benchmarks by which to tally momentum.  Think that formally defining expectations is overkill? Just the opposite is true — it’s liberating for people to know what’s expected of them. Done with care, clarifying mutual expectations stokes initiative and leads to professional growth. It also sets the stage for a continual exchange of constructive feedback.

Step 3 — Ask: “How am I doing?” We’re imperfect creatures. Daily brush fires can divert our attention and scorch our commitments. Checking in with colleagues who report to you brings us back. But be realistic.  Don’t expect employees to rattle off opinions when you ask how you’ve been doing as a leader. Some may respond without reservation. Others will hesitate even if they have a laundry list of gripes — unless they’ve noticed you’re open to hearing honest feedback. Even then, you may have to resort to the Rule of Three Technique (ask three times, digging deeper each time, before you get honest answers). Or, try ASU (Ask and Shut Up). Just smile and look him in the eye until he expresses himself. People get an energy boost when they empty the buffer between what’s on their mind and what’s on their lips. It frees up psychic energy so they can focus on their work in a more positive, constructive way. Here is a typical exchange.

Request one: Is there anything I could do differently to improve how things work around here?

Response: Uh, no, not really.

Request two: I really value your opinion, Scott. You’re telling me there’s nothing I need to change?

Response: (Pause) No, everything’s fine.

Request three: (Now get specific.) C’mon, I bet you can name three things I’m doing right and three things I could do better.

Response: Well, yeah, I guess I could think of something. It’s no big deal, but you always seem to have broccoli stuck in your teeth.


Step 4 — Tell: “Here’s how you’re doing.” Use the cardinal rules of coaching: mold, don’t scold; a spoonful of sugar helps the criticism go down; and leave people feeling empowered, not embittered. 

People are more likely to take corrective feedback to heart if it’s imparted with care and — this is critical —accompanied by kudos. That’s to say, shy away from striding up to an employee, brusquely pointing out an error, and warning it had better not happen again. Any short-term productivity gain will be offset by a steady decline into hostility. And please, never, ever reprimand anybody in front of his colleagues. Not only is it demeaning, it leaves employees seething. I don’t care how busy or moody you are, it’s inexcusable to disrespect people. Call it entrepreneurial karma, but if the day comes when you find yourself flailing away in the unforgiving grip of company quicksand, it’s the dead weight of all your damaged relationships that will drag you, and your company, down.

The Ask/Tell Technique also helped me monitor how the people who reported to me were dealing with the people who reported to them. Every so often I asked my executive committee to list the names of everyone on their team.

Then I asked them to grade each relationship based on four Ask/Tell questions.

1. How well do you understand her needs, desires and expectations?

2. Do you think she perfectly understands what you expect of her?

3. Is she comfortable letting you know her likes and dislikes?

4. Are you giving her regular feedback?

For grades lower than A, I didn’t even bother to ask why. My execs knew the drill. They busted out their planners and scheduled meetings with the people they needed to get to know better.

Nobody knew his people better than Wayne Shimer. He was master of what I called the “inner-view,” chatting up employees in the hall, during lunch, or before getting down to business around the conference table.

It’s nothing more complex than a series of simple inquiries: “What’s up with your kids?” “How’s your dad feeling?” After that, the four questions above go down a lot easier. Wayne read his people like sports fans read box scores. “Full-time or part-time, sales or service tech,” Wayne said, “I want to know your name, whether you’re married, got kids, pets, and anything else I could learn about you. I knew if somebody was ready to quit, and why, long before their manager did.”

Good inner-viewers don’t just go through the motions. People knew I genuinely cared about them.

“Tom always looked you straight in the eye and you could tell he was listening,” said Brad Burley, a regional manager, “that he really did want to know. That was the key to Tom’s success: caring.”

Point the Ask/Tell Technique at your subordinates or at external business partners.

It’s a key to motivating and keeping everyone’s expectations clear and aboveboard.    ■

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers. Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine. In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. For more information, e-mail him at [email protected].

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.