do you expect your staff to read your mind?

Does this sound familiar? You’ve delegated work and thought that you and your staff person were on the same page about what to do, but when the work comes back to you, it’s really different from what you thought it would be. Or, you’re frustrated because your team didn’t prioritize the items you cared about most, or spent too much time on something that you don’t think has much value.

All too often, when managers are frustrated over what feels like lack of alignment, it’s because they assumed that their staff understood what they wanted – but didn’t actually make it clear. In other words, they counted on the person to read their mind.

It’s easy to fall into doing this, especially easy when you’ve worked with people for a while and assume that you speak the same shorthand. But it’s also not a great way to manage. Over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about how to make sure you’re not asking your staff to mind-read. You can read it here.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. The Bimmer Guy

    Oh. My. Gosh. This is my boss. I’ll complete a project he assigned me, and then at the end, he’ll come up with five or six major factors I had no way of considering because they weren’t in the scope of my knowledge…and then I have to re-do it. For now, I’ve learned to ask the right questions so that I get everything I need during the introduction stage, but he would do well to read and consider this article.

  2. Bee Eye LL

    I am a middle manager and quite often the upper management will have their meetings and discussions without including me until the very end, then I get forwarded a series of email threads and have to work backwards to decipher what they want done so I can divvy the work out to my team. Frustrates me to no end. And it always starts with, “Were you included on that email last week?”

  3. Kyrielle

    #4 is one of my favorite pet peeves. I’ve worked for enough managers who didn’t communicate priority well that now I’ve started prioritizing things *and sending that priority to the manager* along with the status update, so they can correct if it’s wrong.

    And still, some of them don’t, and then are upset I did X before Y…just like I listed I was going to do…in status emails…going back as far as several weeks prior. >.<

  4. Ordinary World

    This is an excellent article, with really good suggestions. I know I’ll be referring back to it for my own use at some time, and will also keep it mind for tips to respond as a delegatee when I’m unsure if I’m on the same page as my manager.

  5. kkcf

    I wish my last employer would have seen this. I was in a contract to hire job that – surprise! – didn’t hire because they were unclear on what they wanted from me. So I turned in what they didn’t want. And then when I asked for feedback on how to change it I got… crickets. So yes, please.

  6. Sophia Brooks

    This happened to me a lot when I was younger, and also because I manage student workers! I used to get really annoyed when they didn’t know what I considered really basic things, like how to address and envelope, or what a manila folder (vs manila envelope) was. Now I just try to teach them, or make sure they know before I give them something to do.

    There are always funny things that happen- like just now I realized I told my student to change the dates on something to reflect the current start date. What I said was “Change September 10 to January 10”. What I didn’t say was “change 2015 to 2016”!

    Or, when doing costumes, I asked the students to hang some garments together in the dressing room. I was picture all of the garments, on separate hangers, hung in one section in the dressing room. What I got was all the garments on one hanger!

    1. Papyrus

      The hanger thing… How was that even possible!? My shirts slip off their hangers all the time, and that’s just one piece of clothing per hanger. As much as I hate spelling out every single little thing to someone, I’m actually kind of impressed with this one.

      1. Sophia Brooks

        It was impressive! Some of the clothes were kind of tied on to the hanger by the sleeves… When I saw it, I couldn’t stop laughing, because they must have thought I was crazy to ask them to hang them all on one hanger, but they really did their best to follow directions!

    2. hbc

      Oh, that’s the worst. Because then you have to explain to everyone from now on that it’s one garment per hanger, and 90% of the students are going to be thinking, “Does she think I’m an idiot?”

    3. Not So NewReader

      They did what you asked. They hung some garments together. I am shaking my head. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me. I never knew how lousy I was at word choices until I supervised PEOPLE. Ugh.

      My people were great. They were very willing to do what I asked. It was humbling for me to see my poor word choice go into action. Just like Alison said, I started using samples and stop points for check-ins. I learned a lot from them. I learned about thinking on my feet and I learned how to chose words that were less ambiguous. They also had ideas on reducing the numbers of steps in a process or the number of people it took to do something. They were really good at this, so I would launch the new project and they would tweak it to make it run very slick. We worked into getting used to each other.

      I had some interesting turnabouts, too. Part of my job was to be very good at estimating time frames for completion. It took a bit, but I cultivated that in myself. When I was assigned a new group of people they watched me estimate time frames and commented that I was pretty good. (I could guess within a couple hours, which was pretty good.) After about a year together my crew was better at estimating time frames than I was. They were closer/more accurate. I stopped using my estimates and started using theirs. It was an interesting turnabout.

      I think the worst part is when you take over a team that you do not know and they do not know you. You definitely need all these steps that Alison is talking about here. As time goes on and familiarity sets in, it’s a good idea to review Alison’s points because it’s easy to get sloppy and skip things. For example, New Task comes into the group and people still need examples and check-ins because it’s a new task. I couldn’t let their great time estimates and outstanding workflow tweaks lull me into thinking, “Oh they will just figure this out on their own.” These were separate things. I still had to be there for them and remain involved.

      1. Kelly L.

        I told a student worker to take some copy paper out of the case and put it in the cabinet next to the copier. I assumed she’d know “still packaged in reams.” Nerp. Bless her heart, she opened up every single ream and put it all in there loose.

          1. Kelly L.

            In theory! But in practice, it all slipped and slid around in there, and when we’d go to put it in the copier, it wasn’t in straight stacks anymore and was a bit of a PITA to get back into line.

          2. Chinook

            You would think loose paper would be handy but there is a right and wrong side to all paper and an arrow on the package that says which is the “right” side and in the machines to tell you which direction to put the paper in. Mastering this nugget of knowledge solves about 80% of all paper jams.

            1. Observer

              That’s not true for all kinds of paper, and it’s becoming less common from what I am seeing. On the other hand, most paper should stay in the ream anyway until it’s ready do put in the machine, because if there is humidity the air it’s going to affect the paper. And, if you are in a humid area with inadequate air conditioning, you WILL jam your copier or printer. Also, if you are using specialty paper, and some more expensive brands, or paper with a “finish”, this makes a huge difference.

              Bottom line is that you need to tell people how to handle their printer / copier paper. It’s NOT obvious.

    4. fposte

      There are some tech writing courses that do exercises where they test a student’s work by having a demo student follow the instructions exactly as the first student wrote it. Often hilarity ensues.

      1. Prismatic Professional

        I’ve never forgotten the time we had to tell our science teacher how to make a peanut butter sandwich. I had no idea so many things could go wrong in the making of a peanut butter sandwich!!

        1. Jaydee

          That still makes me so irrationally angry when I think about it. I’m pretty sure our teacher was just stretching and reaching to find ways to misunderstand our instructions. As an adult I understand the purpose of that exercise, but you don’t have to take it to ridiculous, illogical extremes. Stick the handle of the knife in the jar because the kids didn’t specify that it should be the blade end. But don’t act like you don’t understand what the word “spread” means or like you think you need to remove the peanut butter from the jar with your fingers because they didn’t specify that you should use the knife (which you have just correctly inserted).

  7. christine j

    My poor supervisor does this constantly, and is constantly disappointed in my and my colleagues’ work as a result. Some examples: “Produce a work plan, explaining what tasks your department is planning to work on this quarter and when”. I spend days producing a very detailed Gantt chart, present it to her. “No, I meant a WORKPLAN”. ?? Still not sure what she wanted — she gave up without ever making me understand.

    We come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, which I think contributes. Her english is flawless so it’s easy not to think of it, but sometimes I think she only thinks of fairly narrow definitions of terms and expressions that a native speaker might interpret more broadly.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      Ughhh. I had an awful boss who made up his own expressions for common things and expected me to intuit what they meant – and he was a native English speaker. I cried every day of that job, which was thankfully short.

      1. Kelly L.

        I’ve got one boss who will call multiple forms the same thing. “Hey, can you make 15 copies of the teapot review sheet?” There are 3 or 4 different things that, depending on her mood, “teapot review sheet” refers to. And every time I feel dumb trying to clarify.

    2. SJ

      “Still not sure what she wanted — she gave up without ever making me understand.”

      That’s always so frustrating, being made to feel like you’re the one who screwed up somehow and are a huge disappointment for not getting it.

      1. christine j

        Right? I mean, maybe she didn’t even know what she wanted, who knows, but the whole thing always ends up feeling very condescending.

      2. christine j

        I also think it’s really important for bosses to be open to staff questions, and to be careful not to be scornful/make staff feel stupid when they ask questions. If your staff are frequently asking you questions about their work to which you think the answers are obvious (especially if more than one person is doing this), that’s them telling you that you are not communicating your expectations as clearly as you think you are!

  8. Z

    I’m a legal assistant and one of my lawyers does this to me constantly. He’ll send me an email with an attachment but no body text and expect me to know what to do. (With one of my lawyers, I do know – he is not that lawyer.) He asked me to merge to PDFs and then came back maybe 20 minutes later and asked me if I had filed it. No, I had not filed it. All he did was ask me to merge two documents. Merge two documents does not in any way equal file it. Not to mention, the document referenced several exhibits I was completely unfamiliar with.

    I don’t need my hand held, but I do need to be given actual directions.

  9. MissDisplaced

    Unfortunately, I now report to a boss like this. The requests are often so vague, like “Prepare notes and talking points for the division meeting we’re scheduling.” OK, like I have no idea what it is you want to discuss at the division meeting nor when you want it scheduled or even if you want me to schedule it based on this statement. So then it requires a lot of time being wasted as you try to chase down all the executives to see when they are available for the big meeting.
    I don’t know why managers, especially executive level managers behave this way. Just be clear about what you want! Seriously, we’re here to help, but we’re not mind readers.
    Do they just enjoy the feeling of being kowtowed to?

  10. SJ

    My boss will send emails that will say nothing but “Status update?” or something similar and expect us to know what he’s referring to. We’re not a place where we have only one task to work on at a time.

    1. Sammie

      I get—“I’m not sure if I’m missing something…but was this dealt with?” “This” is always some vague series of haiku that we are expected to interpret into a strategy/task.

  11. Michael Uong

    This is a living example of a frequent problem in and out of the workplace. I can think of many examples in friendship where people assume or expect one will or will not do something then get upset when the expected does maternalise. It is all about control, either as the manager or direct report. As a manager, one should be aware of what was outlined here and be explicit in expectations. As am employee, take ownership by checking and asking appropriate questions of how your manager expects things to be done.

    Clear communication is vital, even at the risk of being overly micro-managing.

  12. Just me

    100% my former boss. Expected us to read his mind to know what he wanted. Gave no direction, then hated everything we did. Obsessed over the tiniest detail when other things were way more pressing. Decided he didn’t like the color red and yelled at us when we used it (before he told us he hated it). I could go on.

    Only a few of about 500 reasons why he is my former boss.

  13. OhNo

    Ha, this is definitely my current boss, especially when it comes to writing projects. She always has some vision in mind that she fails to share when it comes to how things should be written and what should be included.

    It’s doubly irritating for me because the two other people who get writing projects from her have worked with her for five years or more, and are absolutely on the same wavelength. So I end up looking stupid because I’m the only one who doesn’t “get it” the first time around and has to have it explained.

  14. Jennifer

    I think a lot of the gap lies in communication and presentation of tasks. I’ve taken a communication course from “The Great Courses,” which has helped me realize how I present thoughts based on my audience, and how to course correct based on verbal or non-verbal feedback.

  15. Brisvegan

    My former terrible manager, too!

    She would do vague things like say that she wanted an overall detailed daily calendar for all staff for the whole year, to get ready before the next year’s teaching (in 10 months, time) and then flip out (shaking with rage and yelling) because she double booked two items that no one else knew about or had access to. She had apparently expected us to understand that “before next year” meant “yesterday.”

    (Apparently if we had a calendar of everyone else’s movements, she would not have privately scheduled two important things at the exact same time without telling anyone, when knowing everyone else’s calendar would not have prevented the problem??)

    She also yelled at an administrative staff member for not magically knowing that boss’ stapler was empty and not refilling it. (Note: boss had both stapler and box of staples in her desk drawer in her locked office.)

    There were quite a few emails telling people that we would have major tasks or reports to them on the same day. We would find out when the email was copied to us with only a few hours to spare. Apparently we should have divined the need for a major item because boss had been told weeks before, but had not passed it on to anyone. (Which may also have been sabotage, she had hired several of her friends on very short contracts on the basis that long term staff were leaving, when they had no intention to do so before other bullying started.)

    I put together part of what was going on later in the year when I saw her do a presentation to students in which she told the student that part of being a good employee was to figure out what the boss wanted without being told and implement it. The flip side of this was apparently that when we didn’t read her mind without instructions, and figure out that she wanted very anomalous things that were unusual in our milieu, we were very bad and slack employees.

  16. Panda Bandit

    Yeah, my boss does this a lot. Last week he handed me a haphazard stack of papers. The papers ended up spilling all over because they weren’t stapled. He expected me to know he was out of staples and that I was supposed to staple them, all without saying a word.

  17. JustAnotherHRPro

    UGH…this is my manager. She will mention something so very much in passing like “we should implement a new design on our teapots”. Then like a month later ask us why it wasn’t completed. My response is always something like “that conversation happened in the restroom – there was never any follow up conversation or official meeting to discuss design changes”.

    Since I don’t believe in managing up, I am managing my way out…

  18. LTRFTR

    Heh… I’ll never forget the time that I asked a manager “what order do you want these documents in?” and she replied, “it doesn’t matter,” then got mad at me for putting them in the wrong order.

    That was the day I got… shall we say… nasal fluids on another manager. Awful day.


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