This story is one I frequently hear in one guise or another. As often, this will be from from the line manager’s perspective, and the frustration associated with the inability of direct reports to undertake simple requests and complete straightforward objectives.
In such cases I will usually ask how sure they were that the other person understood what was being requested. Invariably they will be very quick to assure me that they were absolutely clear. When I then ask, as I usually do, how they know that, typical responses will be “well, it’s obvious what was meant” or “she said she was OK about it…” and so on. In virtually all situations there has been an assumption made – an assumption that you understand my request, or an assumption that I understand what you are requesting of me. Rarely it seems do we test these assumptions.
Giving vague or unclear directions is terribly common in organisations (and at home!) – we all do it. There are various contributory factors at work:
- Some personality types are less likely than others to be detail focused or specific in their language. For example, research suggests that introverted types tend to be more specific in their communication than extraverts, who tend to be more vague.
- We may be busy
- We may assume that what was meant was obvious
Accepting vague or unclear directions or objectives is similarly common, and for similar reasons. In addition, if we have a personality that is keen to please, we may be more likely to accede to a request and to quickly get stuck in. If we are low in assertiveness we may be reluctant to ask for clarification or to admit we are unclear. Usually though, we make similar assumptions and assume we know what is meant.
So how can we overcome these assumptions and avoid the problems that result? What behaviours can we change?
- When you are giving a direction or setting an objective, be as clear as possible – ideally use SMART* goals to shape your request.
- Once given, check that the other person has fully understood what has been requested. Ask them to describe what they have been asked to do (in practice, this step often reveals gaps in understanding).
- Encourage your staff and colleagues to challenge you for clarification of objectives and requests.
- When you are being given an objective or direction, check with the person that you have fully understood what they mean. Repeat back what you understand has been communicated. Have them confirm or correct the request. If the person is vague use the SMART mnemonic to remind you of what you need to know.
- If the person has a habit of changing the goal posts, follow up the last step with an email confirming what has been agreed – it will probably help them too to become clearer in their communication.