Who among us hasn’t received conflicting messages about expectations from someone in authority? It’s frustrating, if not exasperating…unless we know how to deal with it.
A person responsible for scheduling volunteers was told by the person in authority that he wanted people to volunteer for the various openings, then went on to say that he wanted certain qualities in the volunteers for some of the roles.
You and I look at these expectations and see an inherent conflict…what people volunteer to do doesn’t always mesh with their background and experience. Yet, the person who set the above expectation seems oblivious to this fact.
We see this kind of mixed messages in a variety of situations, like when:
- A manager gives a direct report an assignment with top priority when an hour earlier they gave the same direct report an assignment that was then the top priority.
- The person in authority assigns multiple tasks without giving instructions as to priority.
- A parent tells their child to clean their room and do their homework, again, without setting priorities.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Dealing with conflicting expectations
Over the years I’ve found that the easiest way to deal with these situations, with their attendant frustrations, is to ask the person in authority a question that enables them to see the inherent conflict their messaging has created. It also forces the person to choose among the conflicting messages. Here are some examples:
In the example in the background segment, the person in charge of scheduling could ask “What do you want me to do when no one possessing these qualities volunteers? Do I accept willing volunteers or recruit people with these qualities?”
When a manager sets conflicting priorities or fails to indicate priorities, the question you should ask is “Which of these is the higher priority?” This question reminds the manager of earlier assignments given to you and forces the manager to become clear about their expectations…for their benefit as well as yours.
Similarly, we ought to teach our children to ask us “Which of these is a priority?” when they get conflicting or incomplete messages from us. It’s as easy for parents to fall into this trap as it is someone in leadership in an organization. Kids can be taught to ask respectfully, i.e. without judgment or sarcasm.
As you can see, the key to dealing with others’ conflicting expectations is to offer options. The options being: doing A first, then B, or B then A. Offering options acknowledges the person in authority’s right to that authority while asking them to clarify their expectations. Options are the most powerful tools I’ve found for dealing with situations that all too often result in frustration and anger.
When you find yourself getting frustrated because someone in authority is sending conflicting messages, then it’s time to employ questions like those outlined above.
The mere act of developing these questions in anticipation of future occurrences will alleviate the frustration and anger you feel as well as the disappointment and frustration of the person who sent conflicting messages.
On the flip side of the coin, teach those who report to you (direct reports and children alike) to ask you these type of questions when you set conflicting expectations or fail to set priorities when assigning tasks. I know that as a manager I’ve fall into this trap; it’s a natural tendency that we all possess that doesn’t serve us well. It’s why I taught my direct reports to ask me “Which of these is the higher priority?” It reminded me of what I had previously assigned to them and forced me to make a conscious choice about which was more important. It saved them and me a lot of frustration and anger.
For our kids
Teach your kids to ask questions when you either set conflicting goals or fail to set priorities. You’ll save both you and your children a great deal of frustration, anxiety and anger. Stated more positively, you’ll all enjoy a more loving relationship with one another…something we all treasure in our lives.
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