Ask This First When Expectations Are Unmet.

by Rob Marchalonis.

Are you getting the results you want? 

Every week, I engage with leaders to help them be more productive and successful.  A core part of the work is to advise and coach these courageous individuals in heavy-duty roles who assume serious responsibilities.  To be effective, they need to make wise decisions and behave in ways that enhance the organization’s relationships and culture.  This requires a delicate balance of both “heartfelt” and “mindful” leadership, and it isn’t easy.  One challenging aspect of the job is dealing with employees who bring different experience, knowledge, and abilities along with a spectrum of perspectives, personalities, and communication styles.

Employee challenges often relate to accountability. 

Leaders, how do you respond to workers who avoid, excuse, defend, or otherwise deflect reasonable accountability?  Frequently there are gaps between what employees and their leaders believe to be true.  Sometimes this includes reasons why goals or objectives are not being met!  In simple terms, there’s a missed understanding.

Missed understandings are inevitable.

While it’s common to not fully understand someone, it rarely results in good outcomes.  (Few people find peace or satisfaction in not understanding something unless perhaps they buy into an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy).  Misunderstandings often cause frustration, stress, or anger which can then lead to poor health, conflict, fighting, or worse.  What is your response as a leader when you encounter misunderstandings?  Would you like to avoid some of the pain and suffering that comes with them?

Start by asking. 

One way to address employee misunderstandings is to simply ask a few questions.  Try starting with, “Help me understand?”  and progress to learn more.  Communicate with the other person while nurturing a respectful and professional dialog to learn as much as you can about the situation.  What better way to honor and connect with others as you build relationship and trust?  How else do you expect to get the results and outcomes that you ultimately want?  As you talk, remain disciplined to minimize any emotions or judgment that could erupt during the conversation.  Seek first to understand, by asking and listening, and then look for opportunities to show empathy and provide appropriate support.

Consider this list as a guide.

The following question and comment examples can help leaders listen, communicate, and process employee misunderstandings better:

  • “Help me understand”
    • “You mentioned an (issue, concern, frustration, need, opportunity, etc.)…
    • “Tell me more to help me understand?”
    • “How long has it been this way?”
    • “What have you done in response?”
    • “What do you see as your options?”
    • “What solution seems best for everyone?”
  • “Please show me”
    • “You said you’re having a problem, show me what’s happening.”
    • “Can I see for myself what this looks like?”
    • “Is anyone else having this problem?”
    • “What have you done to try to fix this?”
    • “Where can you go to get help?”
  •  “Let’s do a study”
    • “You say you’re (busy, overworked, under-supported, don’t have time, etc.)…
    • “I’d like to understand this better.  Let’s do a (time, data, feedback, etc.) study!”
    • “Would you mind logging your (issues, incidents, etc.), so I can get a better understanding?”
  •  “Who can help you?”
    • “I agree this is a problem, who can help you with this?”
    • “Where have you gone for help?  What happened?”
    • “What have others suggested?”
  • “How can I help you?”
    • “How can I help?”
    • “How do you believe that I could help you with this?”
    • “If I was to help, what would you like me to do?”
    • “I have some limitations, but I’d like to help you as best as I can.”
  • “Nothing personal”
    • “My concern is not a ‘personal’ issue with you.  We just need someone who can help us (get this done, fill role, etc.).”
    • “This issue is very important for the company/others, and I need someone to find a solution.  Could it be you?”
    • “I’d like for you to have this opportunity, but if you don’t see a fit I’m willing/ready to adjust as necessary.”
  • “Let’s re-connect on this”
    • “Will you give me an update on this by (email, phone, text, meeting) by (date, day, time)?”
    • “I’d like to have this decided/resolved by (date, day, time, event, etc.).”
    • “What’s our progress on…?  When do you expect to have this finished?”
  • “Well done”
    • “Great job on the (specific project, job, task, challenge)!”
    • “Wow, that (task, project, issue) was really a challenge.  Nice work getting it figured out!”
    • “I know you’ve put a lot of effort into XXX since MM/DD.  Thanks, for your (persistence, commitment, success!)”
    • Avoid non-specific or insincere praise delivered in impersonal ways.  Directly praise specific results.
    • Be careful with “impersonal group praise” when more personal individual or workgroup feedback is appropriate.

Obviously, the questions and statements above are just examples that may or may not apply directly to your situation or challenges. Hopefully, they can guide how to proceed with questions to better communicate with and understand others.

Don’t argue, ask.

When you next misunderstand, and tensions start to rise, take the lead and simply ask questions.  With an understanding of others and willingness to be helpful, you will be amazed at how your relationships and results will improve.  I believe you will discover this approach is not only effective in the workplace, but also with family, friends, neighbors, and most others. Imagine, better understanding and outcomes—by simply asking great questions.

Rob Marchalonis ( helps organizations develop Leadership, Strategy, and Process solutions so they can prosper and grow.  Connect with Rob and check out his book, IncentShare: Motivate, Recruit, and Get Results with Incentives, available at Amazon.