Managers And The Art Of Giving Instructions
Sun Tzu was a Chinese general and master strategist during 500 BC. His book, The Art of War, is one of the most respected treatises on strategy and compulsory reading for senior staff officers of most armed forces in the world. As we know, the business world has adopted a lot from the military on strategy, logistics, management, and operations from World War II onwards. So, this 13-chapter gem, only about 10,000 words, is a recommended reading for advanced management courses on strategy.
The book includes a story that has a good lesson for managers about giving instructions. The emperor, having read Sun Tzu’s book, summons him to his palace and challenges him to put his theories into practice. He asks Sun Tzu to train his 180 concubines to become an elite fighting force for his personal protection. Sun Tzu orders the women to form two lines and places two of the emperor’s favorite concubines as leaders at the head of each group.
He explains to them that when he gives orders (“forward march,” “about-turn,” and so on), they should obey. When he asks them if they have understood the instructions, they nod. But when Sun Tzu gives the orders, the women burst out laughing. Sun Tzu calmly says that if the instructions are not clear, the general is to blame and repeats the instructions. But once again, the women start giggling after being given an order. Then Sun Tzu says that if the instructions are not clear, the general is to blame. But if the instructions are clear and not followed, then it is the fault of the officers. He orders the guards to behead the leaders at the head of the two lines, ignoring the emperor’s loud pleas to spare them. After that, the ladies perform the drill perfectly!
The moral of the story for managers is simple. It is your responsibility to make sure your instructions are clear and understood. If not, it is your fault. If they are clear, then the employees are accountable. There are other ways of holding them responsible than beheading them, of course. Telling people what you want them to do seems a very simple and elementary skill, but it is surprising to see even experienced managers giving ambiguous and ineffective instructions that snowball into major crises.
You may be thinking that instructions are usually given to the inexperienced or trainees but that is not always the case. Highly competent and skilled professionals also need proper instructions for the successful execution of critical, high-value tasks.
Tips To Give Effective Instructions
1. Make Expected Results Clear
Be very clear on what exactly you want from the person, the output or deliverable you expect at the end of following those instructions. This part is most important. Making sure of the outcome is a battle half won. Can you write down or articulate clearly and succinctly what you expect to be done?
Most managers are casual about this part. When they themselves are not clear about the outcome, they will surely transfer the same ambiguity to the listener. Even if the person fails to understand some of your instructions, if they are clear about the expected result, they will rise to the occasion. If you give due credit to their intelligence and ingenuity, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
2. Don’t Give Too Many
The more instructions, the less the comprehension and the higher the likelihood of non-compliance. The human brain finds it easier to understand and remember anything between two and five points or steps.
So, be it a process or a set of instructions, it is better to restrict them to a maximum of five. Easy-to-understand language and logically sequenced steps will help. If you can write them down and ask your colleague to read them out loud for clarity, it will be a sure-shot way for success.
3. Go Slow
People tend to rush through when giving instructions. They talk almost at the speed of their thoughts. But listening comprehension of people can be pretty low. We speak faster than we can comprehend. You will be surprised how much the listener has missed if you ask them to repeat what you have told them. Keeping this in mind, the instructor needs to drop their speed to 50% of their normal speed.
4. Check Comprehension
It may sound presumptuous but asking the person to explain to you what they have understood will almost always surprise you with the gaps in understanding or plain misunderstanding. This can also be done diplomatically. We don’t need to make the listener feel he is an imbecile. We can always ask if they have any suggestions or doubts.
5. Assure Support
Assure the person that they can always come back to you in case of doubts. People tend to give instructions and assume they are understood and will be remembered perfectly. It is always a good practice to end the session with an assurance that you are available if they hit a rough spot. It is also a good idea to monitor progress, especially in the case of trainees.
Giving Instructions In eLearning
When it comes to self-paced, asynchronous learning like eLearning, giving instructions to learners becomes even more difficult as there is no real-time, face-to-face interaction with the learner. We are handicapped, as communication is devoid of the non-verbal element, which forms more than 70% of all communication.
The usual instructions like “Click Next,” “Click Here to Read More,” “Drag & Drop,” and so on are now superfluous as learners have become proficient enough to proceed without such basic instructions. However, my own research has shown that culture has a substantial say in this. Eastern cultures appreciate clear and detailed instructions as opposed to western cultures where step-by-step instructions are considered unnecessary.
In eLearning or any self-paced learning program, instructions need to be a seamless part of the user experience (UX). The graphic user interface (GUI), navigation, colors, animations, and other engagements should make the user experience intuitive, obviating the need for explicit instructions. Learners should not fumble trying to figure out what to do next. An excellent example of intuitive design can be seen on the screens of most smartphones.
Miscommunication is rampant in all channels of communication—oral or written. Most problems, business or personal, arise from misunderstanding the intent. The onus is always on the person sharing information to make sure they are understood the way they want to be. Most miscommunication occurs because of unverified assumptions, longwinded talking, emotional overtones, unnecessary haste, mismatched body language, and not having the basic courtesy of asking the other person if they have understood you.
You also need to modify your communication style depending on who is on the other side. Some may need detailed explanations while others may be totally in sync with you even before you complete the sentence. As communication is rated among the top skills in management, we as leaders and trainers can ill afford miscommunication.