Effectively sharing ideas can be a challenging skill for managers to build and refine. It’s common to have a disconnect on expectations when a manager shares an idea. When a direct or skip-level report hears an idea from their management, it’s natural for the idea to be perceived as something they’re now expected to take action on. But the opposite can also happen–where an idea is interpreted simply as input and not a request. While crafting my quarterly goals at the beginning of 2019, my team members helped me identify these disconnects were happening from time to time, and that was something I could improve upon as a leader.

I decided to take an approach where I would be deliberate about how I was sharing ideas–either proactively or when asked for guidance. I wanted to find a way to be clear about when I was requesting something of them vs. when I was merely sharing an idea they could evaluate. I needed to define a vocabulary that we could agree to and use consistently.

Defining a Vocabulary

Before declaring a vocabulary, I needed to understand different ways in which I share ideas. I concluded that there are 3 different ways I share ideas:

  • I suggest ideas as pure input, with no expectation of output
  • I recommend ideas or actions for consideration
  • I need ideas or actions to be pursued

There we have it: 3 distinct expectations–suggest, recommend, and need. That became my vocabulary.

Using the Vocabulary

With a goal of improving communication with my team members, it was critical that I involved them in the goal. People around me needed to know that I was working to improve this aspect of my leadership and know how to interpret my input. I couldn’t just define a vocabulary and start using it, I also needed to advertise the vocabulary early and often.

I began with my direct reports to test the system. I told them that I was going to start declaring my expectations with each idea I shared with them. I would explicitly use the words suggest, recommend, and need, with those being on the defined spectrum. I even crafted a hand gesture to illustrate the spectrum and the clickstops on it–suggest is on my right, recommend is in the middle, and need is on my left. Every time I shared an idea with one of my direct reports, I would do the following:

  1. Remind them that I’m using this new vocabulary
  2. Conduct the hand gesture to show the 3 clickstops on the spectrum
  3. Explicitly call out which expectation I had for the idea, saying suggest, recommend, or need, and then leave my hand on that place on the spectrum

Immediate Growth

Within a few weeks, my direct reports and I observed improvements in our communication and collaboration. Thereafter, I applied this structure much more broadly in my work. I explained the spectrum to others regularly and as more people became familiar with this tool, I was able to stop reminding people that I am using this vocabulary. Now I can simply use the words suggest, recommend, and need to get the point across; the hand gesture has also remained as habit, and I do think it accentuates that the word choice was deliberate.

Using this vocabulary deliberately has also helped me keep mental accounting of how often I use each expectation. I strive to use need rarely, those are ideas or actions that I’m delegating. I use recommend more often, but I try to avoid using it unless I am directly asked for a recommendation. I use suggest the most, especially when it’s an idea I am presenting to someone without them asking.

The balance I’ve had across these three modes of sharing ideas has been effective this year. Overall, I think this vocabulary has helped me grow my leadership skills this year and I’ve suggested to my direct reports that they consider applying the practice themselves.