Setting direction is an important step for leaders to take, at any level. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or leading a small team at the “coal face”, setting direction is a critical action to take.
Being able to set a direction does wonderful things which I find are often under-appreciated.
If your team is showing poor performance or experiencing conflict, setting a clear direction can be a good way to get things back on track.
What Setting a Clear Direction Does For Your Team
Setting direction is not magic or rocket science, and some readers will probably scoff, saying “Well of course you need to set the direction”.
However, I’ve seen situations where teams and organisation don’t clarify their direction, which leads to untold conflict, apathy and poor productivity.
Let’s avoid those things, shall we?
1. Setting Direction Helps You Hold People Accountable
Firstly, setting direction helps you create one of the most important factors in your team – accountability.
Accountability is important for motivation and performance, and you can read more about this in the related post below.
To hold people accountable, you need to set clear expectations with your team. These expectations are very useful to set boundaries for performance standards or the goal that you want your team to meet.
When you set clear expectations, your team has no doubt about what they need to achieve.
If your team members aren’t going the right way or meeting the standard, you have a clear basis to be able to provide feedback and reinforce consequences to help them improve.
Learn More: 5 Simple Ways to Improve Accountability in Your Team.
2. Setting Direction Clarifies Priorities and Reduces Busy Work
In my experience, there is an enormous amount of busy work going on in our workplaces. This work doesn’t add much value, but it does keep people occupied.
Examples of busy work include writing documents that nobody reads, creating a plan that is never going to be acted upon, or distracting yourself by attending meetings when you don’t need to.
When leaders set a clear direction, busy work tends to fall away. People start to focus their attention and effort towards achieving the direction.
Your team will be better able to determine what’s important, and adjust accordingly. This also gives them the power to push back on unimportant work, because they know what matters more.
All of a sudden, that meeting that you attend every week (where you don’t contribute and just listen) doesn’t seem so important when there is an impending deadline you need to hit.
Learn More: Do You Have An Effective Team, or Are You Focused on Busywork?
3. A Direction Helps to Motivate Your Team
Work life can become boring when there aren’t any targets to hit. If your team is stuck in the dreary world of “business as usual”, things can get pretty stale.
Setting a clear direction helps with this because people have a target, something they can put their efforts towards achieving.
Working with your team to set the direction and then move towards it can be motivating and satisfying, giving your team purpose – a “reason for being”. Without this, you can expect to see apathy and poor performance.
Essential Components of a Good Direction
Setting a direction is obvious right? Don’t you just tell people what to do?
Well, yes – sort of.
You might also ask, “What’s the difference between a direction and a goal?”
I think of a direction to be broader than a goal. A direction may be a little less well-defined, and perhaps might even be just be a “flag on the hill” in the distance.
I consider goals to be much more specific and detailed than a direction. You generally set team or individual goals at a more granular level.
And yes, there is a difference between a good and bad direction. So here are some of the essential parts that I look for when setting a direction.
1. Your Team Has Helped to Shape It.
In most cases, I like to let my team have some input into the direction before it is finalised. This helps to generate “buy-in”, where people feel more invested, because they get a chance to shape it.
This isn’t appropriate in all cases. For example, if you have a corporate directive from above or are in the middle of an emergency, sometimes stopping to discuss the direction is not the best option.
2. Your Team Understands Why the Direction Matters.
In the olden days, it was very common for leaders to be directive, telling people what to do.
Now, collaboration and working inclusively is much more popular. In general, people are looking for leaders who listen, take feedback and don’t pretend they know it all.
This means that “Just do what I tell you” doesn’t work as well as it used to. People want you to bring them along on the journey.
One of the best ways to do this is to explain “why” the direction you are proposing really matters. When people understand the reasons, they are more likely to buy-in to the idea because they can see how their work contributes to the big picture.
The fancy term for this is “Task Significance”. Basically, this is the degree to which your team members feel that the work they do makes a difference.
3. The Direction Is Specific Enough.
Another key to a good direction is that it is as specific as it needs to be. Ideally, you don’t want your team to be able to interpret the direction in multiple different ways.
However, it’s worth remembering that autonomy is a key part of motivation. This means it might be a good idea to enable your teams to work flexibly within the boundaries of your direction.
For example, you might tell your team what needs to be accomplished, without telling them exactly how they need to do it. This allows them the freedom to figure out a good way to move forward.
Basically if your direction is specific enough, you’ll know when you’ve arrived at your destination.
4. The Direction Is Time-Bound.
Sometimes it’s tempting to just tell your team you want something, without letting them know when it’s needed. This is because setting a deadline puts pressure on people.
However, you require this to keep things moving. In the past I have found myself giving direction, saying “Do it when you have time”. This is terribly vague, because people may never have time!
Be specific about the time and date you need things. This helps people to set priorities and manage their own workload. It also helps them negotiate with you regarding competing priorities.
Remember also that pressure can be really helpful when it comes to motivation and performance!
Learn More: How to Use Work Pressure to Help Your Team Thrive.
5. The Direction Acknowledges Uncertainty.
In many cases, you won’t have all the answers right away. You will have a general idea of where you need to be, but you won’t know exactly where that is, or how long it might take.
This is fine, and to be expected. But you can’t let it stop you from setting a direction, because you need a direction to move forward.
What I like to do in these cases is to set the direction as a milestone in the future. Sometimes I call this a “planning milestone”.
For example, if I know roughly where I want the team to go, but I don’t really know how long it will take, then the direction might be to have a plan in 2 weeks, which will help us understand the next steps.
Don’t get caught up in perfection and having all the answers. Leaders who do this will become “passive”, failing to take action or make a decision, which will prevent them from moving forward.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode 48: The Perils of Passive Leadership.
A Simple Example of Setting a Direction
Let’s look at an example.
Your team now has access to a fancy new system which you would like them to use to track their work tasks, instead of the old spreadsheet they are used to.
In this situation, a sensible direction might include:
- Demonstrating to your team some of the issues with the current spreadsheet, by providing real examples of trouble you’ve encountered (giving people the why)
- Working with the team to come up with a plan to migrate all the tasks to the new system, by next Friday (making it time-bound)
- Letting the team determine how the tasks will be grouped and categorised, rather than giving them the answer (giving some autonomy to flex within the direction)
- Setting the expectation that everyone will be using the new system, 2 weeks from now (specific date and clear expectations).
This is a very simple example, but you can see that this will help your team get on the “same page” and have an achievable direction that they can work towards.
This works on any scale, from your team, all the way up to setting the corporate strategy. It’s not rocket science, but it might just help you to get to where you want to go and clarify your priorities.
This is very educational and helpful to those who lack skills.
Thanks for the comment Lynette.
Great explanation, I’ve enjoyed the reading!
Thanks for the comment Mikhail – glad you found it useful.
Hi Ben thanks alot for the opportunity. I am interested
You are welcome Lynette
How do you measure (or how would my boss measure) if I am improving my “setting direction” skills? It ambiguous. I may “feel” my team is responding and doing better, but what’s the evidence I can “show” to my leaders where I have improved this skill? Any thoughts?
Hi Lisa, great question!
A few suggestions of criteria you could use to measure your setting direction skills are:
1. You can explain the direction concisely and clearly if asked and have it documented, so you can show people.
2. Your team can clearly explain the direction too.
3. You could link your direction to some sort of metric e.g. when we follow this direction, we aim to improve *something* by 20%. Then you can measure that metric and see if it improves. You could show these metrics openly so other people can also see progress.
Also, don’t underestimate the intangibles too. I’ve found that clear direction can improve motivation, reduce conflict and increase cohesion within a team. Keep an eye on the team and see if there are improvements in behaviour and productivity too.
Let me know what you think, and thanks for the question!
The discussion on setting clear direction as it relates to our ability to hold folks accountable is missing two necessary ingredients; teaching and tools. Simply setting direction doesn’t automatically lend itself to a manager’s ability to provide feedback and reinforce consequences. If folks haven’t been taught how to perform what you’re expecting or how to perform in their roles or given the tools (I.e. procedures, guidance) then tours essentially beating them with a consequence stick, hoping for different results. How do you factor this in as a thoughtful leader?
Thanks for the comment Carolyne – it’s definitely important that people are able to follow the direction. I think you’ve pretty much covered the answer in your comment.
One way to help with this is to involve them in the direction setting / strategy process – you’ll be able to get a clear sense of how comfortable / confident they are in achieving it. Otherwise, I think it’s about setting clear expectations and having frequent conversations and providing feedback as you suggested. If this gives rise to a training need, then that can be provided too.