When our son was 11 years old, he earned his junior black belt in karate. Of course, we were very proud of him, for he had come a very long way since his first lesson. We remember that lesson well. He was 7 years old, and one of the first things the master instructor taught him was a simple exercise called a kata. This kata ended with him, the beginning student, saying emphatically, “V for victory and bow for humility” as he crisscrossed arms over his head with fists clinched for the “V” and then bowed for humility.

That night, he came home from his lesson and quickly ran to us to proudly show us what he had learned. Seeing his enthusiasm, we dropped what we were doing and became an intent audience of two.  As he finished the kata, he performed the closing, “V for victory, bow for humility!” he shouted. But then, to our surprise, he started yelling insults at us … “Man, I took you down! How about that, buddy?” and so on.  More than a bit shocked and confused, we asked, “Hey pal, what was that all about?”

He responded in a very matter-of-fact manner, “That’s the bow for humility.”

Well, this pointed out how such a little difference could make a BIG difference – he thought it was a bow for humiliation, not humility! Fear not, we clarified that definition before he earned his black belt.

If we depend on others’ perceptions to meet our expectations, we will be disappointed. Our son heard his instructor’s performance expectation but made his own (incredibly misdirected) interpretation based on his own perceptions. The truth is we remember only 20 percent of what we hear. Why is this percentage so low?

Let’s say you are hurried and swing by an employee’s cube and say, “Grace, please make sure you use the new format on the month-end sales report … thanks.” Even if Grace is a sharp employee, what do you think the chances are she will hear your request accurately, remember it, recall it accurately when it’s relevant, interpret your instructions as you intended, then perform the task satisfactorily? When we look at it this way, 20 percent sounds good.

Explaining expectations up front minimizes re-coaching on the back end. If you are coaching employees on the same thing repeatedly, before you get frustrated with them, ask yourself, “Am I inspiring learning or am I just checking this off my list?” “Am I handing off a memo with instructions or am I asking the employee to perform a task while I give him real-time feedback?”

We generally remember:

  • 10% of what we read
  • 20% of what we hear
  • 30% of what we see
  • 50% of what we hear and see
  • 70% of what we say
  • 90% of what we say and do.

In the example with our son, he heard his performance expectation (20 percent chance of remembering) but made his own interpretations from there.

Well, this happens on our teams every day, and it’s up to us to ensure effective coaching of our teams. Explaining to gain alignment is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later leadership proposition. Take a shortcut and we will be saying the same thing to the same employee next week – no fun for either of us. Create a habit of aligning on expectations to boost your team’s reliability.


“Lee and Julie deliver powerful lessons. As inspirational as it is practical. A vital tool for leaders at any career stage. An extraordinary book!” 

Marshall Goldsmith, The Thinkers 50  #1 Leadership Thinker in the World