Great Leaders Create Context

Imagine not knowing that you need to upgrade your iPhone from time to time. The battery life begins to wane, overall performance degrades, and the whole time there is something you could do to fix the issue. But you don’t realize that the phone has to be updated, because you aren’t used to updating a phone. A phone is something you buy, plug into the wall and “tada!” it works, right? 

This is a context–setting conversation I recently had with my dad, a very sharp, healthy and productive 80-year-old former executive.  We were talking about his iPhone 5s, which had the battery life of about four hours. I noticed that he had not updated his phone, and the update was long overdue. When I asked him about that, his comment was that he didn’t realize that he needed to update the phone. I explained that the iPhone is actually a mini-computer like the one on his desk and requires updates, feed and care in order for it to work. We updated to the latest operating system and he was on his way with a new understanding about managing communication technology.

How does this story relate to you as someone leading a team? Creating context for goals, decisions and other expectations in the workplace is critical for success. It’s important as a leader to know what each person on your team knows, what point of view that they have, and how their experience and knowledge informs their behavior and decision-making. It’s just as important to know your own point of view and what assumptions you are prone to making. 

Creating context before making a request or setting expectations with an employee can help you avoid frustration and lost productivity down the road. For example, policies and processes are often spelled out as check lists of do’s and don’ts.  If you take the time to explain the rationale behind a policy or process first, you will be more successful in attaining understanding and buy-in from those who have to follow the policy or process. If employees do not understand the context for the policy, they will tend to make up a story about why this policy exists and why it was implemented now. Without context, employees may create their own iteration of the policy in the moment.

New employees may not have any context for understanding why they should behave a certain way in the culture of your company or your team.  Setting context allows them to be more successful, and demonstrates respect by taking the time to slow down the conversation long enough to make sure that they are on the train with you.

Setting context helps reframe thinking in a positive way, and allows you as a leader to provide clear direction and support from a common point of view. Less guessing means less drama, less rework and more engaged employees. And fewer calls to technical support.