How much thought do you put into how you ask (or tell) people to do things? Do you give a lot of detail and dance around what needs to be done hoping someone will take the hint? Do you ask if people want to do a specific task or what out of a list they want to do? Or are you one of the brash ones who just gives commands of what each person will do, sounding a little more like a crabby Oprah. You get a chore and you get a chore!
When I’m at my worst, because of my blunt and direct nature, I’m more on the crabby Oprah side of the spectrum. I can dole out jobs to people with the best of them with little thought to how a person feels about it, if they ever wanted to do it in the first place, or if they’ll be particularly skilled at it. (I did start this by saying it was only when I’m at my worst right?) I once assigned a project that required an understanding of Excel and use of some simple formulas and pivot tables to a person who had all but never been in the program. My expectation was that he “just get it done.” He did nothing with the project until I checked in for status about a week later. At that point he explained he didn’t know how to set up anything that I was talking about. I apologized, reminded him he could have pointed that out to me earlier, and worked with him to set up a template to input the data in. Sort of a teach a man to fish situation right there.
Another time I was leading a multidepartment project that would directly benefit several areas of the organization but was being held up due to competing priorities on the IT side. As we got closer and closer and there was only one piece left to complete that to me seemed like a flip of a switch (mostly because I don’t know how IT works) I got an email that in a very round about way indicated there was another delay. I politely asked for an ETA for the work to be complete and got another very vague response that didn’t really answer the question and more said “we’re trying”. Well, I didn’t appreciate the non-answer. I hit reply so fast and zipped off a very blunt email demanding an estimated completion date. I got no response, for days I got no response. The person I’d been emailing with all morning just disappeared. Finally I sent another email, in it I explained that I do understand the team is working very hard to get the work done. I appreciate all of their efforts. Then I explained why I am looking for an estimated completion date and what will be done with the information. I apologized for my prior email and offered a call to discuss if that would be better. I got a response within 5 minutes of that email. That response offered grace and understanding for my frustration as well as provided a detailed account of what needs to be done, why there is a delay, and when I can expect it done which was only a few days off. Then, and this is the best part, they got it done same day.
Why was there such a drastic change? I was asking for the same thing each time and they were both just silent the first time around. Common denominator here is the way I was asking (or demanding if you want to get specific) for the work to be done and the amount of information I was willing to share. Typically my communications are well put together and simple naturally including all the info and using proper tone but I will still make mistakes. Now when I see that I’m going full on bull in a china shop, I look for four pieces in my emails: gratitude, why, what, and how.
The best communications start with true thoughtful gratitude. It might be simple but it should be meant and not a blanket, thanks for coming. Expressing gratitude sounds like, I appreciate all of the work you’ve done to date, thank you for your participation in the meeting today, or I’m excited for us to start a new project today. It doesn’t have to be long and often times starts out the tone to get everyone on board.
Following gratitude is the why. Why is this thing important; why are we even bothering to do it at all? Just doing work to do work is frustrating. We all want to at least have some understanding of why the task is needed and how it will help. This unifies everyone around the problem that needs to be solved.
What needs to be done comes next and while we’re all pretty used to including this in our communications (because its the thing we’re asking for) write it carefully and then read it back. Make absolutely sure it is clear. Too often we assume the details like how many, how often, and deadlines rather than communicating them. Above I asked for a work deadline. Was estimated ok? Did I need a range? When did I want them to get that information back? How frequently did I want updates if that wouldn’t be met? A clear what will help to ensure you actually get what you’re asking for.
How the work is completed can differ based on the work that needs to be done and who is doing it. For example, when I asked for the Excel workbook I could have included a template or a workbook I’d created for another project as a guide. I could have suggested resources like people within the organization, YouTube videos, or Excel training modules. I could have just given very clear direction on what I wanted to see and encouraged him to ask questions. Or I could have clearly laid out that I wanted him to work on this independently using whatever resources he needed and get a draft back to me by X deadline and ask questions if needed. This can be tricky and often feels like it is left off in an team member – leader relationship because the leader is trying to develop in the team member the ability to critically think about the problem and come up with their own solution (or how). If the request is to peers or a one to many type of ask (as in me to members of IT) we are driving consistency so as much detail as possible is needed. Telling people where to go with questions is helpful as well; if you need anything call Karen, if you’d like to discuss further please set a meeting with everyone on this email list, please send all questions to X shared email box.
If you’re thinking that was a lot of information and you aren’t going to do this because your emails will be 5 pages long, you’re wrong. Including all of this information doesn’t have to be long winded. You can typically accomplish all with about one sentence per topic. A full example may read:
Thank you for your participation in the meeting earlier today and for sharing your concerns around the accessibility of our electronic filing system. Just as you pointed out, it is imperative that we organize our processes so that our people are able to access them easily to use them regularly. As a result we’ll be kicking off the project to identify, update, and categorize all processes in two weeks. What we are asking from you is to identify 1-2 subject matter experts to assist in this effort. Please send me your names by the end of the week. Please reach out to me if there are any questions.
We’ve talked mostly about written communication here, primarily because it is the best place to practice since you can read and edit before it is out in the world. This framework applies to verbal communication and visual communication as well. Once you’ve mastered the steps you can apply them to all types of discussions, speeches, presentations, etcetera.
You can also use this framework in the reverse. If you’re on the other side of this example, the person taking the direction or completing the ask, use this as a guide to get more information. If all you get is info on the what, like create the Excel workbook in my first example, then explain you need some more information and start asking more questions about the why and the how. You could say something like, This sounds like an interesting project can you help me understand what it might be used for? or I don’t know a lot about Excel but I’m happy to learn. Do you have any pointers on what exactly you’d like to see or where I can learn more? Be thoughtful about the questions you’re asking and push for details you need.
These are intended to be tips for achieving short term results quicker and with more accuracy. The truth of the matter though is that it will also help in achieving long term goals of building relationships, fostering a collaborative environment, and pointing back at the values and the bigger why.
Things I’m reminding myself of
Clarity doesn’t just apply to the actual ask, it applies to all aspects of the communication. Be clear and specific in your gratitude so it sounds sincere. Provide a clear why so people can join in your desire to fix the problem. Specifying what you need done, again, helps ensure you’ll get what you want. Finally, a clear how allows them to jump in to getting the work done quickly and with less re-work.
Just as communicating gratitude, why, what, and how is helpful on both sides of the equation in your career it is also true in your personal life. Imagine the different response you’d get from your kids if instead of saying go brush your teeth you said I’m glad you’re done with breakfast. We need to leave in 10 minutes and we need to brush teeth, feed the dogs, and put on our shoes. What do you think you should do now? Or for your spouse rather than saying come put away the leftovers if you said Thanks for clearing the table. I’d like to have the whole kitchen clean before bed. Do you think you could put the leftovers in the fridge so I can finish the dishes? It’s a subtle difference but the clarity and recognition of work already done goes a long way in getting short term and long term results you want.