Trust British playwright George Bernard Shaw to get to the heart of the matter: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Nowhere is this truer than in the “assigning” conversation between a boss with a mission and a subordinate about to get a new task.
This should be an easy exchange. In the Army it is: “Column right, march!” No confusion there. But in most business conversations, there are too many intersections where traffic gets snarled or sidetracked.
To begin, the boss needs to know exactly what he or she wants. Therein lies the problem. The boss often has only vague or generalized notions of the objective. As a result, the language of the instructions lacks precision as the boss gropes to describe ideas not yet fully framed.
The process is often rushed, limiting the valuable time it takes two people to converse their way toward agreement on objectives and action plans. Worse, the assignment is often made on email, a medium that favors brevity over clarity.
The result can be an unclear message carelessly transmitted and inaccurately interpreted. Regardless, the boss is under the illusion that her message has been communicated while the subordinate, although confused, is reluctant to admit his uncertainty.
What are the steps to a successful “assigning” conversation?
- Know what you want. Write down your objectives and expectations. Are they uncomplicated and clear? The more time you spend clarifying the assignment at the beginning, the greater the likelihood of success.
- Show the assignees what you’ve written. Question them about their interpretations. Do they view the assignment in the same way you do? Probe for what’s not clear. They don’t want to appear stupid, so they may not admit what it is they don’t understand. Get it out of them.
- Ask for their suggestions. You may know what you want to accomplish, but they may have clever ideas how. Invite them to help refine the assignment. Be sure to ask them how they intend to get started and how they will keep you informed along the way.
If you want a project to end well, focus your communication skills on the assignment.