How to Make the Implicit Explicit … and Increase Your Team’s Ability to Get Excellent Results

It’s easy for managers to assume that their staff understand exactly what they want, even when they’re using shorthand or communicating without a lot of detail. But in practice, the potential for miscommunication is much higher than most managers realize. That’s why it’s important to find ways to make the implicit explicit – in other words, taking the invisible expectations and assumptions that you have in your head and explicitly articulating them to your staff. After all, you’re probably going to hold people to those expectations whether you articulate them or not.

Doing this will make you a more effective manager of any staff member, but it’s especially important when you’re managing someone who may have a different frame of reference from you, whether because of differences in race, gender, age, cultural background, or other identities, or simply due to differing experiences and perspectives. Often when managing across this type of difference, people feel awkward (and act awkwardly!), and end up inadvertently reinforcing that gap in reference points and perspective. But if you focus on making the implicit explicit, you’ll be able to bridge that gap, set the other person up for success, and get better results.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Share the playbook: make the implicit explicit

It might be crystal clear to you what you mean when you tell someone to “run the meeting well” or “turn in a reasonably polished draft.” But the person you’re talking to might have a different idea of what those terms mean. For instance, by “running the meeting well,” you might mean focusing on relationships and getting to know people well before making any requests of them, but your staff member might think it means getting through all the items on the agenda and ending with clear next steps. Similarly, by “a reasonably polished draft,” you might mean typo-free with correct formatting and close to ready to send out … but your staff member might assume that small errors are okay and the point is just to get aligned on content.

So, when you’re delegating work, be sure to:

  • Be as transparent as possible about what’s in your head. Err on the side of extracting and verbalizing whatever’s in your head on the project, even if it feels vague or not fully-formed. For example, if you’re delegating a fundraising appeal, you might say, “I know it needs to achieve X and Y, but we have be careful in how we handle Z because that’s so sensitive” or “I picture ___ (major funder) reading it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’” (Our Delegation Worksheet is one way to walk yourself through these details.)
  • Don’t rely on shorthand. Adding a phrase like “…by which, I mean XYZ” when you’re using terms that may not be clear to everyone can go a long way. For example, rather than “send me a reasonably polished draft,” you might say “send me a draft that’s close to ready to go out – meaning that it’s been proofread, fact-checked, and formatted the way it will look in its final form.”
  • Provide examples. Samples of work that’s similar to what you’re looking for can be a quick and direct way to get aligned with a staff member about your expectations. For example, if your new communications associate is writing a press release, show her some of the communications team’s strongest press releases so she has a clear vision of what successful pieces look like. Or, you might point your web designer to several websites that demonstrate the feel that you want your new site to have, rather than just hoping that you have the same understanding of “make it pop.”
  • If someone is getting something wrong, pause for a moment and try to figure out if there’s a piece that you’re assuming is obvious but haven’t discussed. For example, if you’re frustrated that your assistant came to work dressed down on a day an important funder would be in the office, it’s worth asking yourself if you’ve ever explicitly relayed your expectation to her about dressing for VIPs.

2. Ask about the playbook: solicit the other person’s perspective.

Delegating well should be a two-way conversation, not a one-way dictation. That can be particularly powerful when you’re managing across lines of difference, as studies show that part of the value of having a diverse staff is that the diversity of perspectives will often produce stronger results than a single perspective alone. (See, for example, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine W. Phillips, Scientific American, Sept. 16, 2014.) When you’re talking over an assignment, make a point of inviting input (“I’m open, though – is there anything about the aims here that you think we should change?”) rather than just issuing a set of mandates. And if your staff member pushes back on an idea or advocates for a different approach, make sure that you don’t get defensive or too rooted in your own ideas; even if you ask for input often, you generally won’t get it unless you genuinely welcome it (and that can be particularly true when managing across lines of difference, where trust can take longer to build).

3. Revisit the playbook: incorporate new perspectives

In doing the above, be willing to consider that by incorporating others’ viewpoints, you might be able to create a new expectation that leads to better results than if you hadn’t taken the time to talk it through. For example, in the example above about what it means to run a meeting well (focusing on relationships vs. getting through the agenda with clear next steps), you might find in talking through your differing perspectives that incorporating both approaches could help you get even better results. In fact, you might end up with a broader guideline like “drive the meeting to reflect what you know of the client’s style,” which might be a better guideline, period.

Of course, deeply listening to the other person’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll change the outcome you’re looking for. But even when it doesn’t, the discussion will almost certainly give both of you additional helpful context. If, after talking it through, you don’t change your expectation (“I really respect your perspective on this, but here’s why we’re going to use this approach”), your staff person is likely to come away with a deeper understanding of your rationale, a stronger grasp on the playbook, and a feeling that she’s been heard and her viewpoint respected. Similarly, you might be able to incorporate knowledge of your staff member’s perspective in how you manage the person around those expectations. For example, an expectation might be “accommodate volunteers’ busy schedules, even when it’s inconvenient for us.” That expectation might not change, but knowing how it sits with your staff member might lead you to spend a bit more time in your next check-in reinforcing how much volunteers appreciate your organization’s reputation for doing that (or even just commiserating about the challenges it can cause).