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Poor Behavior 6: Giving Vague Instructions

Conflicts of Interest Blog by Vivian Scott

We’re halfway through our list of a Dozen Dirty Behaviors that cause problems at work with #6; giving vauge instructions.

What do you think your boss means when she gives you an assignment and then adds, “When you get to it” as part of the instructions? Does she mean to provide the final product by 3:30? Maybe she wants it by Wednesday at noon? Or, do you interpret her vagueness to mean never because you have other work to do? Conversely, if she says, “Make this is a priority” do you drop everything and work on the new task until it’s finished–even if you miss other deadlines?

Ambiguity about what’s needed, by when, and by whom is a common frustration in the workplace (it’s also a frustration at home but that’s another subject!). If you work with someone who too often uses hazy, vague language or skims over the details, don’t be afraid to ask questions to bring things out of the fog. Sometimes it’s helpful to put the questions in the form of a statement like, “This is a priority, so I’m going to drop the other projects until Thursday noon when this is due.” When you do that you not only create clarity around the instruction but you also demonstrate for the other person how to give clear, precise instructions that leave little for misinterpretation.

Interpreting what someone wants can be as confusing as trying to interpret why they don’t just spell it out from the start. Sometimes people leave out details because they’re busy or they think you already know the answer—and in today’s workplace that’s understandable. Sometimes we leave out details because we’re concerned others will be upset or react poorly. Whatever the reason, if you experience a coworker who is hesitant to give you all the information you need, you may have to ask pointed questions to help them tighten up their request. Ask questions like, “Do you need this by 5:00? By tomorrow morning at 7:00? What’s your preference?” and so on until you’ve narrowed the field of potential options and have an agreement. It may take a little practice and a few extra minutes getting all the details but it certainly beats an awkward situation in which one of you is trying to read between the lines and the other is hoping everything will just work out.

When it comes to how you deliver expectations practice being clear each and every time. Say things like, “I would like you to complete an outline for the report and email it to me by 6:00 p.m. today. I’ll read it over tonight and let you know what I think right after my morning meeting with Joe tomorrow.” A statement like that leaves very little room for misunderstanding. It also gives the other person the opportunity to negotiate something else so he doesn’t let you down when he doesn’t provide exactly what you needed.

                        author

Vivian Scott

Vivian Scott is a Professional Certified Mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies.  She spent many years in the competitive and often stress-filled world of high tech marketing where she realized resolving conflict within the confines of office politics was paramount to success.  Through creative solutions… MORE >

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