This 2-Word Rule Made Me More Productive — And Saved My Mental Health

It’s happened so many times I can’t even tell you.

Walk into a meeting. Get an assignment. Leave. Then… flounder. What was I supposed to do? What was the project scope? What would a successful outcome even look like?

Unfortunately, this experience is pervasive. Gallup conducted a study of employees (including upper-level managers) a few years back that revealed a startling, if unsurprising truth: Most employees don’t have clear expectations to work with.

Is it any wonder their anxiety is through the roof and they live in a constant state of stress? How can they perform — let alone perform well — if they don’t what they’re supposed to do or how to do it?

As a manager, I’ve heard many workers quietly confess to the mental strain of this ambiguity. I remember what it was like myself, and ache to give them a way out. They need some way to get past the confusion without irking higher-ups or hampering communication and productivity. 

After reading a few articles on productivity, I pieced the solution together: “Expectation Mirroring.” Mirroring is a thing, and setting clear expectations is a thing. But if you put them together, it makes work life a heck of a lot easier — for both managers and employees.

Here’s how it works for employees: Whenever an assignment is passed along, take a moment to digest both the scope and criteria for success, then repeat it back to your manager. Ask for confirmation that you fully understand what’s expected and when. If there’s a disconnect, ask for clarity until you’re on the same page.

For managers and C-levels, it’s important to make expectation mirroring, well, an expectation. We all get caught up in the frenzy of work and, as a result, communication can suffer. Make it a point to remind your direct reports to engage in expectation mirroring so that they’re confident they understand the assignment and what success looks like. Also, take time to listen to this mirroring so that you can offer proper clarity.

This tactic extends beyond the scope of assigning tasks, of course. Leaders can use this to confirm they fully understand what an employee expects of them during their tenure at a company. Quarterly or annual reviews are perfect for this, but keep the “door open” for expectation mirroring at any time — especially as things change within the company.

The benefit of all of this is clear: Beyond the obvious improved clarity, I can tell you that my anxiety has fallen. It’s not gone, of course, but with expectations sharply defined, I now know what I’m aiming for and how I’m going to get there. Even better, results are consistent — for me and for the company. This means accelerated growth in company ranks and a career I can be proud of.

All because of a simple, 2-word rule.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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