Managers and supervisors spend the bulk of their time communicating. The Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness reports that leaders surveyed say they spend about 80 percent of their time communicating. This time expenditure includes asking employees to complete specific tasks or solve issues, writing emails to delegate work assignments and training employees in new skills and behaviors.
However, most managers fail to also ensure that their employees understand these instructions on a consistent basis. If this is you, following the three steps below will help you communicate your expectations clearly and more fully ensure understanding.
1. State the objective in specific, quantifiable and bounded terms. Whether written or verbal, instructions must give the employee enough detailed information that he or she can complete the task correctly. The amount of detail needed will change given the employee’s experience with that specific task.
However, we believe that supervisors and managers should err on the side of too much rather than too little detail. In our experience, most mistakes begin when employees try to fill in the blanks and end with the supervisor stating, “That’s not what I meant.”
Instructions that are measurable and quantifiable make it easier for both the employee and employer to know when the employee has met the objective. Asking an employee to answer the phone doesn’t supply enough detail. Asking him or her to answer the phone within three rings, using a specific greeting and a pleasant tone of voice is more likely to get you the behavior you want.
Finally, timing and availability of resources should be part of the instructions. Providing employees with beginning and ending dates helps to cement expectations. In the initial instructions, managers should relay the names of other people the employee can involve, whether they can hire additional help and whether they have access to additional money and other resources to complete the task.
2. Check for understanding. Even after providing detailed instructions, the manager or supervisor must check for understanding. If no one does, and the employee doesn’t perform, the fault lies with the manager.
Asking open-ended questions allows managers to ascertain whether they have been successful in transmitting their request. As David Brendel reported in the Harvard Business Review, “Open-ended questions promote dialog and improve engagement.” So, avoid closed-ended questions such as, “Do you understand?” Closed-ended questions do not invite dialogue and don’t tell you if the employee truly understands.
3. Follow-up. The final step is to set a follow-up time, date and location. If you need a report by 4 p.m., you and your employee should agree that you will receive the report earlier (say, 1 p.m.) at your office to give you time to review and approve the work. If the job is complicated, or this is the first time the employee will attempt the task, you may want to set multiple follow-ups before employee delivers the final product.
Remember, when you set objectives, your job is to clearly relay your expectations to the employee. Following the three steps detailed above will help to eliminate miscommunication.