Why is it that employees don’t do what we tell them to do? Why are they unable to follow even the simplest of instructions? Thousands of supervisors ask themselves these questions every day. Perhaps you are one of the thousands. Did you ever think that maybe the problem might not be the employee? Did you ever consider that the problem may be the way you communicate?
Confusing, misleading, ambiguous communication is consistently the root cause for workplace errors. The words that come out of your mouth will travel through all sorts of filters that can be interpreted many different ways depending on the receiver. Sometimes you may not even realize just how unclear or ambiguous your directions are.
For example, Sarah is always late for work. At your meeting with Sarah to discuss the issue, you inform her that she must be at work on time every day, otherwise you're going to write her up. While this seems like a clear cut directive, in fact, it’s not. Sarah has been left to interpret what constitutes “being on time”. Consider the following options:
1 – Sarah is in the building at the closet hanging up her coat at 9:00.
2 – Sarah is in the building getting coffee and checking her makeup at 9:00.
3 – Sarah is in the building on her way to her workstation at 9:00
4 – Sarah is at her desk with her computer on, ready to work at 9:00.
To the supervisor, it is perfectly clear that the correct action is option #4. Without clear and precise instructions, however, Sarah is more likely to respond any where between options 1-3. This leaves the supervisor to discipline on an action that was never clearly spelled out.
Consider the next scenario. Have you ever told an employee to research a project and get back to you. Months later, you are still wondering what happened to the assigned project. Think back at how much direction you actually provided to the employee. How clear was “get back to me?” Is it any wonder that you do not have the completed project on your desk? Think about how much of a difference it would have made if you had provided a clear follow up or ending date.
Keep in mind that expressions such as - “as soon as possible”, “urgent” or even “when you have a moment” are ambiguous at best. Providing specific days and times will remove all of the guess work - especially if the employee is not quite the self starter type.
Supervisors must hold their employees accountable for the work that they are required to do. Supervisors owe it to their employees, however, to be as clear and precise as possible. Next time you issue instructions, check for conciseness and clarity. Don't keep your employee's guessing.