Follow These Instructions To Give Good Ones

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 27, 2009

If you depend on people to follow your instructions, it only makes sense that you give some thought to the manner in which you give those instructions. At sometime or other, we have all been frustrated when the “simplest instructions” were not followed.

The orange juice machine was empty and needed refilling. As the lines grew on one side of the counter, a small gathering grew around the orange juice dispenser on the other side. None of the pleasant but inexperienced counter personnel were able to replace the empty juice container.

Out from the kitchen dashed the morning manager to the rescue. As the she proficiently replaced the container, the manager barked instructions on how to refill the machine.

“Now does everyone understand how that’s done so you can do it the next time?” While the employees all nodded affirmatively, I think they were primarily concerned with avoiding a re occurrence of the problem by discouraging orange juice sales.

Managers are constantly giving instructions. It’s a key part of the job. It’s done so frequently that giving instructions often becomes an unconscious act. It’s so important to getting results however, that it should always be done with cold blooded pre-meditation.

The first and most important consideration in giving effective instructions is picking the right time and place. Choose a setting where you will have the full attention of your employee and sufficient time to cover all relevant information.

For an inexperienced worker, standing in front of a line of customers while a machine is being repaired is a pressure packed situation. We learn some things well under pressure, like when to duck if somebody is shooting, but generally, we comprehend and retain instructions better in a more serene environment.

The nature of many jobs is such that a lot of instructions are given on the fly. That’s O.K. as long as performance is acceptable. If, however, the results are less than satisfactory, give consideration to choosing a better time and place for delivering the instructions. The less experienced the employee, the more important the setting.

Take the time to explain the purpose of the instructions. Remember “Theory Why” management. Comprehension and performance are always enhanced when people understand the purpose of their work.

Clarify all the specifications concerning the assignment. The “Who, What, When, Where, and How” checklist is a reliable standard. Be specific about the objectives. People may have different approaches about how to do a job, but there should be no ambiguity about the results and how they will be measured.

Be clear about the outcome, and when possible, be flexible concerning the means. The more an employee is allowed to contribute to the means, the greater their commitment will be to the task. And who knows, they may come up with a better way!

Review all the potential problems that may arise and suggest methods for dealing with them. Define the individual’s level of authority and specify under what circumstances they should seek assistance and where they can go for help.

Establishing the responsibility for reporting progress with your employee reduces your need to hover around checking up. Everyone will be happier. When an employee comes to you with a problem, be careful how you handle the situation. If you are too judgmental, it may be the last time a problem will be voluntarily reported.

Feedback is the most reliable means of determining if your instructions have been understood. Successful communications are determined by the reception, not the transmission.

After giving instructions, the most commonly asked question “Do you understand?” invites a one word response. Regardless of the level of comprehension, the reply is inevitably “yes” because most people are too ashamed (or polite) to say “no”.

Questions such as “How are you going to go about doing this assignment” or “What is the objective of this job” are more effective at eliciting the feedback necessary to determine if your instructions have been understood. While the employees gathered around the juice machine all nodded “yes”, I doubt that any of them could have repeated the procedures for refilling the juice machine.

As a point of style, it is usually more constructive to “ask”, not “command” when giving instructions. There are times when you will need to “command”, however, they are usually obvious, but infrequent.

Less experienced mangers, feeling the need to establish themselves, are more inclined to take a “command” posture. It’s counter productive. Everybody knows who the boss is, you don’t have to show it. This “command” posture often is greeted with subtle resistance. There is a little rebel in most of us. The truly powerful and confident executives are often the most gracious. It’s effective and it’s classy!

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