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 markedly different from what you thought you both agreed on. Or, you’re frustrated because your team didn’t prioritize the items you cared about most, or spent way too much time on something that you don’t think has much value.

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

It’s easy to fall into doing this. It’s especially easy when you’ve worked with people for a while and assume that you speak the same shorthand; it can be natural to assume that you’re on the same page and you don’t need to spell everything out. But assuming that you don’t in fact employ a team of mind readers, it’s always better to take the time to get aligned. To do that, follow these six steps when you’re delegating work:

1. Cover the big picture: what outcome you need and why. This is the step that answers the question, “What will success look like — really?” Often managers define this in a way that doesn’t really cover what they have in their heads. For example, they’ll say something like, “I need you to help with logistics for the training session,” when what they really mean is, “You’re in charge of making sure the logistics for the training session go smoothly.” The employee hears that they’ll need to field specific tasks that the manager assign, while the manager ends up frustrated that the employee didn’t take more ownership and proactively anticipate additional ways to achieve that broader goal. So be sure that you’re really thinking through what you’ll consider a successful outcome, and convey that.

2. Cover the smaller picture: the details you’ll care about. Try to extract and articulate everything that’s in your head about how you’d like the project to go. An easy way to get at this is to run through how things might go wrong, and then address those right up-front. For example, you might include things like:

  • “We have be careful in how we handle X because that’s so sensitive.”
  • “It needs to reflect X and Y.”
  • “Make sure it’s consistent with the talking points you should get from Communications on this topic.”
  • “I’m guessing it will cost $X, but as long as you don’t go over $Y, we’ll be fine.”

3. Share samples, if possible. This won’t work with every type of assignment, but in many cases it can be helpful to show samples of what you’re looking for – whether it’s examples of websites with the look and feel you want your new site to have or a memo laid out in similar format and structure to what your staff person should write.

4. Don’t forget to talk prioritization. Make sure the employee knows where the project should fall relative to her other priorities and how quickly you expect it to be completed or to see a substantial piece of it.

5. Ask the employee to repeat back to you their understanding of these details. The best way to be sure your employee understands the project the way you do is to simply ask. For example, you could say, “To make sure we’re on the same page, can you tell me what you’re taking away from this?” If the work is more complicated, you might ask the person to send you a quick email summarizing their takeaways. This can feel awkward the first time you do it, so you can say something like, “I know I’m not always as clear as I think I am, so would you capture what we’ve agreed to here and email it back to me, so I can make sure there’s nothing lost in translation?” Almost always when you do this, you’ll find one or two details where you weren’t on the same page and will have a chance to clarify.

6. Check in as the work unfolds. By continuing to engage during the course of the work, you’ll be able to get a feel for how it’s unfolding and can ensure that things are going according to plan or course-correct as needed. You don’t want to hover, but you should check in on the work during your one-on-one’s and in many cases can ask to see interim pieces of the work (such as a draft or interim data). If you do this, you’re far less likely to be surprised at the end of the project – and your staff person is far less likely to feel frustrated that they put time into something that wasn’t quite right.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  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.

    1. Karen*

      Me, too. The last 2 jobs I’ve had, I was let go for not reading the managers’ mind. Their expectations were not clearly communicated, asked to see what I did (usually a spreadsheet containing their request), and without warning or feedback, I’d be fired within 24 hours. This mentality has me beyond frustrated.

  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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