That’s Not What You Said


While doing some research on this post, I stumbled upon the following quote: “Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.”  This quote resonated with me as we have recently been working with contractors on maintenance and home improvement projects.  On some occasions we didn’t get what we asked for.  When we reflected on the issues, it became clear that I hadn’t specified clearly and concisely what we were hoping to achieve and how we wanted it to be done.

After the first issue, it reminded me of some training I had taken many years ago on Reinforcement Based Leadership (RBL).  It also caused me to do some research on construction specifications for small home improvement projects.  I found out that our experience wasn’t unique.  I had not followed a core principle of the training: pinpointed behavior is vital to achieving the right results.

I also saw this not only on our home projects, but in a major road construction project on our street in New Orleans.  In the span of almost three years, I had three different driveways.  The first one was our existing one.  This one was replaced by the second one.  The pouring of the concrete on the second driveway was completed during a small rainstorm.  This left us with an unattractive, spotty driveway.  It was functional but didn’t meet the specifications in the contract between the city and the contractor.  We were not alone.  The contractor had to replace at least six driveways!

Our experience was much less costly.  Our first big project was to replace our upstairs deck with a composite deck.  While this material is more expensive, it should withstand rain and sun exposure for a much longer time.  While the work was going on, I made my first mistake.  I didn’t really inspect the work fully until they were “completed.”  It wasn’t done correctly.  They had damaged the flashing, which caused leaks.  I spent significant time getting the contractor to correct the work and do it right.  There’s still a little bit that needs redoing.

I sat down with my wife and discussed the situation.  After looking back at what happened and why, we determined that not only had I not given clear, concise, and pinpointed instructions I hadn’t supervised the construction effectively.  Fortunately, we had several projects that required contractors, so I had the opportunity to improve.

For the next two projects (work on our fascia and turf replacement) I set clear expectations upfront.  I also watched over the projects more actively and provided feedback as they progressed.  Both projects went better.  We still haven’t got what we were hoping for.

I looked back on some of my RBL training materials to find ways to clearly lay out expectations and pinpoint behaviors for success.  I also checked in with one of two consultants that provided me with training – Aubrey Daniels International.  Their website has an excellent article (find it at  The website offers a pdf download of this article, which I highly recommend for leaders (and anyone in need of ways to be objective and specific to describe desired performance).

I also investigated construction projects and found that contractors also experience poor results from dialogs and contracts with clients.  ConstructConnect, a construction project software provider, published an online article entitled “5 Reasons Construction Projects Fail.”    Inadequate specifications and directions were referred to in a number of the five reasons.  (See for the blog article.)

After my research and review of my recent experience, I’ve learned a lot about setting expectations.  The lessons I learned include:

  • Learn from your mistakes.  I continue to be amazed at how simple this truth is.  It’s also incredibly powerful.  Our interactions with contractors continue to improve as a result.
  • Clearly and specifically lay out your expectations before starting.  I’ve also found it helpful to discuss your expectations with at least one trusted person.  They can help you ensure that your expectations are indeed clear and specific.
  • Align your expectations with all stakeholders.  It’s important to get everyone on the same page right from the start.
  • If you want a contractor to clean up after the job is complete, make it a requirement at the start.  While this may seem obvious, it is a pet peeve of mine.  I’ve had to clean up after contractors in the past and I didn’t like it.  It’s the little things that can make a difference.

I am a firm believer in setting clear and specific expectations.  I also have experienced the benefits of pinpointing behavior to improve performance.  Despite my “head knowledge” in this area, it is not one of my strengths.  I struggle with this a lot.  It’s humbling to look back on my training and realize that I am not applying the knowledge.

How about you?  Have you had similar issues with contractors?  How did you handle it?

Do you have issues with employees not performing up to their potential?  Have you tried to pinpoint behavior and set clear expectations?  I would like to help.  I always learn something by helping others achieve their goals.

Let me know what you think.