I had a boss once who was incredibly smart. He started his career in technology as a developer. He worked his way up to team lead, manager, director, and eventually VP.
While he maintained his technical knowledge, he also developed a deep level of business acumen. The combination of the two led to a fast-tracked career for him. He was well known and admired throughout the company. He advanced quickly.
Despite his esteemed reputation, he had one serious flaw. When he gave direction, people often didn’t know what he wanted. I would sit in meetings with him and he would ask someone in the room to follow up on something. After he left, the person he spoke to would ask the room, “Do you know what he wants me to do?”
I would empathize with them. Because I had been in the same situation. He would ask me to do something and glaze over the details. He didn’t describe the outcome he was looking for. He might as well have told me, “Talk to that guy about the thing we discussed in that one meeting.”
It wasn’t that he was that vague. He would provide some details. He just didn’t provide enough to connect the dots on what he wanted. If you asked a follow up question, it would lead to more unrelated facts.
It made me regularly wonder, what do you do when your manager’s orders create confusion.
I often wondered why a guy so obviously intelligent could consistently give orders that were so confusing. But I came to believe that that was exactly the reason. He was so smart, that he didn’t need the kind of detail that us mortals required.
When his superiors gave him orders that were as vague, he likely was able to decipher their meaning. That’s part of the reason he moved up the corporate ladder so swiftly.
We all tend to think that most people are like us. That’s why when we meet someone new, we start looking for what we have in common. Except for the most devout loner, we all like to belong.
This manager assumed that everyone he worked with was as smart as he was. This led him to give as much detail has he felt he would have needed.
I think we all do that when we are talking about a topic that we know intimately, with someone who knows nothing about it. It comes so natural to us that we just assume that person has the same advanced level of knowledge. Your advanced knowledge is seen as almost basic in your own eyes. You use it so much that it doesn’t even occur to you that someone wouldn’t know it.
Dumbing it down
If you do realize that the person you’re talking to is not as advanced as you, it can still present a quandary. You may have to explain some details. But how much do you have to explain.
There’s a fine line between explaining details to someone and dumbing it down so much that you are condescending. It’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with multiple people. They all may have varying levels of expertise in your topic.
Tips for giving direction that people can follow
There is no such thing as perfectly clear communication. There will always be ambiguity at some level. But here are four tips for making sure there is as much clarity as possible.
Assess your audience: Before you give someone marching orders, it’s wise to ask them how much experience they have with the topic. Some people try to build up their expertise to be much higher than it is. They don’t want the boss to think they’re ignorant.
But delving in with a few basic questions can allow you to determine their expertise. A lot of their understanding can be read in their expression. You can often tell by looking at their face whether they get it, or have a blank expression of confusion.
Describe the final outcome: When you want someone to do something, create a vision for them. Describe what you want your final outcome to look like. Do you want a PowerPoint deck? Explain how many slides it should comprise. Tell them how you envision it being broken down. Remind them who the deck will be presented to and what kind of preferences that person has.
Solicit questions: when you’ve described what you want and what the outcome should look like, ask them if they have any questions. You can usually tell from their questions whether they get it or not. If they say they have no questions, that should be a warning sign. Ask some follow up questions to verify that they have not questions.
Have them describe it back: When they get to the point where they think they understand your request, have them describe it back to you. If they don’t understand it, it will be obvious. If they think they understand it, but don’t, they will describe something completely different than what you want. It may also point out to you how far off your explanation was.
When your orders create questions, you may not get those questions asked. Depending on your level of power or the other person’s perception of your power, they may be too intimidated to ask.
It is important to understand who you’re talking to and solicit their feedback in an effort of avoiding a situation where your order create questions.
Do your orders create confusion?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
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