This simple tweak to a standard request will make you a more effective leader

Paint it.
Paint it.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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It’s hard to imagine Brené Brown, guru of vulnerability and icon of bookstore self-help aisles, frustrated.

The one-time social worker and professor at the University of Houston has risen to fame helping millions of readers make peace with the discomfort that comes with feeling emotionally exposed, or flirting with the risk of failure and shame.

Still, in an excerpt from her new book, Dare to Lead (Random House), Brown describes a past moment of aggravation with two of her assistants. The anecdote is part of a lesson about being an effective leader.

Brown writes:

I’m out of town with my colleagues Murdoch and Barrett facilitating a daring leadership workshop. I ask them to collect one role-play scenario from everyone participating in our two-day training while I’m meeting with the CEO. I want to use these scenarios the next day.

Later that evening, they slide a folder stuffed with handwritten scenarios under my hotel door. I wake up the next morning and panic. Now I have to sort through them and type them up. I’m frustrated with Murdoch and Barrett, and they have no idea why.

It’s a classic case of expectations not being met because they were never voiced. We’ve all lived it. “Do they expect us to read their minds?” employees ask of their managers, who in turn think to themselves, “Do I have to spell everything out?”

Brown explains that she and her assistants learned to avoid this conflict by stealing a basic project management tactic. She writes:

The next time, I ask for the same thing, but Murdoch replies with, “Sure. What does ‘done’ look like?”

I say, “Please type them up, and you and Barrett should pick three that are specific enough to be meaningful but general enough to apply across the group. It would be helpful if I could get them before 8 p.m. so I can review them tonight.”

This is much better. It’s a simple question, one employees should ask frequently if their manager seems to lead through telepathy. Clarifying what done looks like can proactively minimize any risk of frustration later.

Brown, however, still sees an opportunity for improvement. To stop at this juncture, she explains, means that she has taught her assistants how to follow her orders and do things her way, which is not an inspired way to lead. She calls it “leading from control and compliance.”

She would rather be the manager who works with employees to create what she calls a shared sense of purpose—in her case, not only to sell books or seminars, but to change lives.

So Brown and her crew tweaked the question “What does done look like?” to make it a clarion call: “Paint done.”

She describes how it works by revisiting the role-playing scenarios assignment. This time she imagines Murdoch asking, “Paint done.”

“Rather than slinging directives ‘West Wing’ walk-and-talk style, we find Barrett and talk for five minutes,” she writes.

I say, “Here’s my plan. I want to collect scenarios from the participants today so we have new role-plays for the group tomorrow. I don’t want to reuse the ones we brought and used today. They’re really struggling with these hard conversations, and the more specific the scenarios are to their issues and culture, the more helpful the role-playing will be. My plan is to have you collect them and sort through them tonight, looking for ones that are specific but have broad appeal. I’d like y’all to type up three of them and make copies. Instead of breaking the group into pairs, I want to do triads with one person observing and supporting. So, if we have three role-plays for each group, they can each take a turn.”

Murdoch and Barrett think about it for a minute, then Barrett says, “One issue is that everyone here today is from operations. Tomorrow is the marketing team. Will that affect the relatability of the role-plays?”

Me: “Dammit. It totally changes what I’m thinking. Thank you.”

For her team, “paint done” creates space for input from all parties. It ”unearths stealth expectations and unsaid intentions, and it gives the people who are charged with the task tons of color and context,” she writes. “It fosters curiosity, learning, collaboration, reality-checking, and ultimately success.”

“Leaders who work from compliance constantly feel disappointed and resentful, and their teams feel scrutinized,” she adds.

It takes some courage to invite everyone into the process, but that’s part of Brown’s whole argument. To be sure, “paint done,” also is a bit cheesy. The language may not work for every manager, but the concept is powerful nonetheless. If you’re managing young people who can’t deal with orders that don’t seem attached to any meaningful goal, any version of “paint done” will get you further than issuing orders.