Does Everyone In Your Startup Know Where They Stand?

If you have the privilege of being a manager, one of your primary responsibilities is to ensure that everyone on your team knows where they stand. It’s the right thing to do, and even if it weren’t, it is the most effective way to develop and manage people. I’ve seen way too much needless suffering and lost productivity in startups resulting from managers not setting clear expectations and not letting people know how they’re doing relative to expectations.

The Clarify-Observe-Feedback Loop

There are three steps to ensuring people know where they stand:

  1. Clarify context, performance goals, and behavioral expectations
  2. Observe whether goals and expectations are being met
  3. Provide Feedback

The process of managing and developing people occurs as a continuous loop through these three steps. Clarify goals and/or expectations, observe performance, provide feedback. Clarify, Observe, Feedback. Rinse, Wash, Repeat. This cycle is best completed with respect to one or two key behaviors or goals at any given time, in stark contrast to the all-too-typical attempt to cover all expectations and goals once per year at a performance review. I find it useful to think of it as an ongoing Clarify-Observe-Feedback loop.


There are three primary things that managers should clarify (and clarify and clarify) to their team members:

  • Context
  • Goals and priorities
  • Behavioral expectations


Clarifying context is about answering “Why” (i.e., Why are they being asked to do a given project?; Why does the company exist (again)?; Why does it need to be done by a certain date?). It helps people understand where they and their work stand relative to the bigger picture, including the company’s vision and goals, the current situation and the team member’s own career trajectory. As a manager, setting the right context can make all the difference in a team member’s performance.

When handing off projects and setting goals, make sure to let people know how they contribute to the company’s overall vision and goals, and to discuss how they fit in to the bigger picture of that team member’s career and professional development. Think of the difference between heading out to do a 10-mile hike up a local trail (say Mt Tam or Diablo if you’re in SF) versus heading out from Mt Everest base camp for a 10-mile hike toward the summit. While that day’s hike might be the same, the entirely different context alters the way you relate to the hike, your corresponding level of commitment, attitude and performance.

Performance Goals and Priorities

As a manager, it’s difficult to know yourself where your team members stand (much less let them know) when their goals and priorities are not clear. Take the time to answer the question ‘What specifically does winning look like?’ for them overall and for a given project or task, and to clarify which of their goals and projects are most important for the company.

Behavioral Expectations

While most managers feel comfortable holding people accountable for performance, few are willing to call people out on their behaviors when they aren’t directly impacting performance (e.g., showing up late; acting defensively; not paying attention in meetings). One of the reasons for this is that you’ve never agreed on what constitutes appropriate behavior in the first place.

Most often, managers avoid this conversation because it feels awkward to talk to another adult human being about how you expect each other to behave. But think about how much more awkward (and unkind) it is to get upset at someone for not behaving the way you want them to if you’ve never told them what you expect. Or worse, to fire someone for failing to meet expectations that were never communicated. I see this happen all the time in startups, and it causes a tremendous amount of needless suffering all around. So please, discuss with your team members how you expect each other to behave (and be prepared to hold them accountable for their behavior).


Once you have provided clear context, and clarified goals, priorities and expectations with each of your team members, your job is to observe their performance and behavior relative to those goals and expectations. This is an active management task – plan to carve out time specifically to pay attention to your team member’s behaviors and check in on how their projects are going. When you can, actually record specific data that you think may be useful to provide feedback on (such as when they totally nailed a product presentation meeting, showed up hungover at 10:45am twice in one week, or delivered code that technically met the specifications but failed to meet the intended user needs). Pick a tool to record all of your notes on team members – whether that’s Rypple, Evernote, iPhone notes or just a plain old notebook. This will be one of your most critical management tools.


The primary purpose of feedback is to improve performance. Feedback should therefore be given as soon as practical after noticing whatever behavior or performance you’re providing feedback about, and ideally should focus on one behavior or goal at a time. Because human beings have limited memories and even more limited conscious capacity, focusing feedback on one behavior that they very recently exhibited (or failed to exhibit) will maximize the chance that the feedback will actually lead to improved performance.

It’s important to note that giving praise is as important in letting people know where they stand as is giving constructive feedback. Don’t assume people know they’re doing a good job – most people I’ve met are their own harshest critics.

The Three Types of Feedback

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s famous management classic ‘The One Minute Manager’ discusses three primary types of feedback. While most people are familiar with positive feedback (“praise”) and negative feedback (which they call “reprimand”), they point out that for people who still getting up the learning curve for a given skill or in terms of what’s expected of them, a third type called “re-direction” can be useful. It may be useful to think of re-direction as a reprimand without the feelings.

For someone who’s learning something for the first time, you don’t want to make them feel bad for stumbling along the way. You wouldn’t yell at a 1-year old for saying ‘wawa’ instead of ‘water’. As Blanchard and Johnson point out, you should not reprimand someone for something they can’t do, only for something they won’t do. Another way to think about it is that you only reprimand someone when they should have known better. Otherwise, use “re-direction”. That said, when a team member falls short of expectations and should have known better, it’s important to “reprimand” them by letting them know in no uncertain terms how you feel about it, the impact they’ve had on you and the team, and if not corrected, the potential consequences. Here are some of the steps they suggest for each of the feedback types:


  1. What exactly did they do right?
  2. How do you feel about what they did right?
  3. What’s the impact on the organization and others?
  4. Be silent and let it sink in
  5. Encourage more of the same


  1. What exactly did they do wrong?
  2. What’s the impact on the organization and others?
  3. What exactly do you expect of them?
  4. Encourage them by reassuring them that you still have confidence in them

What exactly did they do wrong?

  1. How do you feel about what they did wrong?
  2. What’s the impact on the organization and others?
  3. Be silent and let it sink in
  4. Reaffirm you think well of them, just not their performance
  5. If it’s the second or third time, or if the issue is severe, clarify that the behavior must be corrected to continue with the company


If you manage a team, let your team members know where they stand by clarifying context and expectations, allocating time to take note of how they’re doing relative to expectations, and providing immediate, direct feedback – one behavior at a time. If you think you don’t have time to do all of this, remember that it doesn’t have to take a long time and these are amongst the highest leverage activities you can do as a manager. Spending a little of your time going through the Clarify-Observe-Feedback loop with each of your team members will impact the way they spend nearly all of their time. If you’re a member of a team, demand that your manager provides clarity of what’s expected and where you stand relative to those expectations. It’s good management, and it’s the right thing to do.

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