I often say the number one job of leaders is to “drive clarity.” One night at the dinner table, my family was having a “leadership” type conversation (yeah, we’re kind of nerds, I admit it) and I used the clarity phrase. Unironically, my college-aged kid asked, “What exactly do you mean by that?” I’m pretty sure she’s a bright person, so I thought about the fact that she needed me to explain what “drive clarity” meant and realized that there are probably others who are wondering the same thing. What does it mean to “drive clarity”? And more importantly, how can we do it well?

What it means to drive clarity.

It’s not uncommon that a coaching client comes to me frustrated because their boss, or someone higher in their chain of command, has come to them with an additional project or added work for them and their team – all while expecting the team to execute their current projects and deadlines, on time with no changes. My client comes to me feeling stuck in the middle: they want to satisfy the needs of their boss, but they also need to protect their team from burnout and keep them focused on the projects that have already been put in place. How can they satisfy both of these groups who seem to have opposing interests? The key is to drive clarity. What I mean by “drive clarity” is that, rather than randomly choosing a side to make happy (your boss vs. your team), go to the party bringing the additional work and ask for guidance in clarifying the importance of the new tasks. You are in the driver’s seat.

Set boundaries and start communicating.

Driving clarity can be as simple as using the following statement:

“It sounds as though this new initiative you’ve presented is extremely urgent. I want to help you get it done, so I need your help. Here are the other items – all of which feel very urgent – that my team and I are already working on. From your perspective, of all of these initiatives, which should be the priority for me (and my team) over the next (week, month, quarter, etc.)?” 

By having this conversation, you are requiring the person who has just arrived with more work, to acknowledge the projects you’re already committed to, and to help you adjust for the new work according to the goals and priority of the overall team and organization. You seek clarity! You may not have all the information that your boss or the higher-in-the-chain of command leader does. They have a different perspective, and you need them to share it. 

What if I still don’t have clarity?

Unfortunately, often the response my clients receive after asking for clarity is something like:

“I don’t know. They are all urgent.  Just get them all done.”

Or “You and your team can prioritize what matters. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” 

If that’s the response you get, it’s time to go back to the Clarity Driving Drawing Board and author what you believe the priorities should be. Those priorities should then be communicated in an email to ensure there is documentation of the conversation. It should look something like this:

“Thanks for providing me autonomy on getting this work done. If it is up to me (and my team) then from my perspective, this is how I would rank these initiatives, and this is when I expect each is likely to be accomplished (provide projects & timeline).  Unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll assume this order works for you and I’ll proceed with this plan.” 

Remember these key elements when driving clarity

First, acknowledge you understand the importance of the request being made so the person making it feels understood. They need to know you “get it” that their request is imperative. Otherwise, they are likely to simply make their demands in a louder, more dramatic way. You’ve probably noticed that when people feel unheard, they often raise the “volume,” in the way they ask –and often in ways we don’t appreciate. So, communicate your comprehension.

Second, in your reply, remind them of the other initiatives that have all previously been marked as important (by them!) and create a boundary for you and your team; that is, you must communicate that you won’t accept any more work until all parties involved can agree on where it fits into the greater scheme. 

Finally, confirm priorities. Prioritization is key and why you must drive clarity by forcing the person making the new request to rank the order of work flow. This is not only perfectly appropriate, but I propose it is a leader’s job to clarify prioritization and to communicate in a clear, effective way the priorities of a team or organization. If and when that doesn’t happen, it means those on the receiving end must further practice drawing boundaries, communicating regularly and authoring priorities in response.