As anyone who has experienced a miscommunication at work knows all too well, giving instructions is not as easy as telling someone what to do. You tell an employee to do one thing, and they ended up doing something that’s … different. What went wrong? You thought you outlined your awesome plan well.
Usually, mishaps between expectations and reality happen because the task was not communicated in a way the recipient could understand or follow. Learning to give good instructions goes beyond communicating the objective. It means providing guidance, direction, and support along with the intended goal.
Employees cannot get to your intended destination if you don’t provide a map, if you don’t tell them about the bumpy road along the way, and the shortcuts they’re allowed to take. It’s a skill every employee — wherever you fall on the office ladder — needs.
Here’s how to do it right.
1) Make your expectations clear
Giving an instruction means erring on the side of over-communication and explicitly stating your expectations of when, how, and why your instruction should be carried out.
Spelling out your instruction means that you give deadlines with dates. Your “as soon as possible” may be different from someone else’s. Spelling it out means providing examples of best practices and pitfalls to avoid.
Spelling it out also means you anticipate the follow-up question because you’ve done your homework and have studied the players involved.
Harvard Business Review says that work delegation begins with gauging an employee’s competence level: The spectrum begins with doing the task for them, then progresses to teaching them how to ask questions and do the role themselves, and then graduates to your instruction becoming support and guidance because your employee is fully capable.
If the manager giving you marching orders is not giving the level of guidance that you need, you should ask for it. One lesson that’s stayed with me is to ask a boss, “What’s a surprise to you?” in the early stages of our relationship. That way, I can do my job with a solid foundation of what problems to flag and avoid before they become real problems.
2) Instruct like a coach
The coaches you see in sports aren’t just cheering their players on. They’re watching the game and provide in-game feedback, so that mistakes don’t turn into catastrophes. This coaching philosophy should be applied whenever you give an instruction at work.
Talking like a coach is what managing expert Bruce Tulgan advises for workers. In his book, “It’s Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need,” he advises managers to focus on specific instances of individual performance and give honest critiques of those performances, so that the process can improve. You say what’s going well and what’s not. You measure and document progress.
Reminiscing of the demanding, successful coaches in his life, Tulgan said that this active coaching works because it not only makes expectations clear, it sets those expectations high. “You remind them to be purposeful about every single detail. You help them build their skills one day at a time. From focusing, they learn focus itself,” he writes.
3) Make an order a dialogue
When you tell an employee, “Here’s what I need from you,” you also need to ask them, “What do you need from me to do this?”
Giving an instruction means understanding the motivations and limitations of the person you’re instructing. To gain this knowledge, you need to be in regular dialogue with this person.
This ongoing dialogue is what Tulgan advises for workers. In his book, he writes that by checking in regularly, “the stronger and more informed your judgments will be about what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure.”
To make yourself heard and understood, you have to learn what language the employee is speaking, and recognize that the dialogue that works for one employee may not work for another. This constant monitoring and tuning of the people around you is how you turn a plan into a plan of action that will be followed.
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