Vague Expectations

In his book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin tells a short story of a company that decided to start celebrating birthdays to improve morale. The manager told his administrative assistant to buy a cake for a woman in the office named Kate. Now, near the end of the workday, he sent out an email to everyone but Kate, asking them to gather around her desk and sing “Happy Birthday”.

So, as the day draws to a close, everyone awkwardly gathers around Kate and sings “Happy Birthday”. Most everyone sings (or at least mutters) along with the song. A couple of ladies and Kate’s friends really get into it. Kate smiles, and she is clearly embarrassed.

As people begin to start cutting the cake, eager to start eating, the boss stops everyone and says, “That was pretty good, but I want you to sing it again, and this time, sing it better.”

Everyone awkwardly stares at the boss. Nobody sings. You can hear crickets. Why?

In this instance, they knew how to sing “Happy Birthday”. But to sing it better? What does that mean?

Far too often, as leaders and coaches, when we communicate, we communicate in vague descriptions, like this boss did.

We say things like:

  • “We have to compete more.”
  • “We need to be kinder.”
  • “We’ve got to play smarter.”

What is “better”? Well, we need to show them. We need to clarify our expectations.

Rarely is just telling them enough. Sometimes you may need to show them. But, what I have found most effective is using questions to help them identify what those behaviors look like. Questions like:

  • “When someone is competing at their best, what does it look like?”
  • “Think of the best teammate you have ever had. What were the things they said and did? How did they make you feel?”
  • “When the game is close and time is running out, what type of things does a smart team do?”
  • “After practice, what type of things would a grateful team do?”

Clear Expectations

Years ago, when I was coaching in Ireland, I took a team to play basketball in America around Christmas break on two separate occasions. We would travel around for 10 days in a van with a U-Haul trailer, sleeping on the floor of church gymnasiums while being fed by people from the community. Schools, churches, and other groups came together to make this trip possible, and both times, it was an exceptional trip for these boys.

Now, I understood the importance of being thankful for this opportunity, and I wanted the boys to not just be thankful, but GREAT at expressing their gratitude. I acknowledged that saying a good “thank you” was a skill. So, I didn’t just tell them to be thankful and assume they knew what I meant, hoping for the best. Before each trip to the States, we practiced our “thank you”—the skill of a firm handshake, eye contact, saying hello, asking people about themselves, and thanking them specifically for the help they had given us. Every player had to practice until they got it right.

We gave them a basic template:

“Hi, Mr./Mrs. [their name].” Firmly shake their hand while making eye contact. “My name is [your name]. It’s great to meet you. I want to thank you for your part in [tonight’s meal/transportation/accommodation, etc.]. We have had a great trip, and it wouldn’t have been possible without people like you.”

At first, the guys thought it was weird, but after a while, we had a good laugh while practicing these scenarios! And do you know what happened? Our guys crushed it! They were awesome at it, and we still have so many amazing stories of all the good that came from that moment. I even met up with one of these former players a few months ago, and he talked about that exact experience and the positive impact it had on his life.

Put It into Action

  1. State the value or expectation. Ask: “What does that look, sound, and feel like in this situation?” For example, if you want practice to be more intense, you can say: “Our focus today is intensity. Describe what intensity looks like, sounds like, and feels like during practice.”
  2. Create a sliding scale for your athletes to grade themselves. You can use grades like “bad, good, great” or “unacceptable, acceptable, exceptional”, or even a scale of 1-5. Whatever it is, let them define what each level is. The simpler, the better. For example, let’s come back to our “intensity” example from #1. Define these behaviors as they pertain to “bad, good, great”, “unacceptable, acceptable, exceptional”, or what levels 1 through 5 pertain to (1 being worst, 5 being best, etc.) Now, they can self-reflect in a more constructive and specific way.
  3. Roleplay or demonstrate the behaviors. Show them, or have them act out, the right and wrong way to behave. For example, if you want your players to positively encourage each other, you can roleplay a scenario in which a teammate makes a mistake. One of the players must demonstrate the wrong way to encourage this teammate, and another player must demonstrate the right way to encourage this teammate.

-J.P. Nerbun