Specific directions or shut up

One of my old bosses was a genius.

He knew how to influence people in meetings, pitch ideas to decision-makers, and inspire his direct reports to get things done.

But more often than not, there were situations where he gave us vague directions about a project and then disappeared. Being good employees, we followed his directions as best as possible and hoped we were doing it right. (Our follow-up questions never received a response.)

Yet inevitably, when he circled back with us and saw our progress, it was always wrong. Rarely was our work not good; rather, what he imagined the project would look like was different from what we created.

The directions he gave were not enough to communicate what he had in his head. So, when he saw what we made, he could say, “No, not that. This.”

This was incredibly frustrating and wasted so many hours of productivity.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I asked my wife if she could buy a gift for an event we were attending. My text was, “Hey, can you buy a gift for the baby shower?” She said, “Yes.”

When I got home that night, she showed me what she bought. It was all great gifts, but it was not what I had in mind for this close friend, and I got a bit frustrated. But then I realized this was completely my fault. My directions were vague: buy a gift. My wife, being the great executor that she is, went out and did that. She had no reason to ask follow-up questions about whether or not there was something specific that I wanted. She just bought something.

It made me realize that in life—and business—you either need to give specific directions of how you want something done or simply be okay with it being done differently than you would have done it. Giving vague directions to employees and then making them change their work because it’s not what you “pictured” is a great way to waste time and make your employees resent you.

This “vague direction giving” is one reason people work long hours. They spend a whole week working 9-5 on their boss’ project, only for the boss to, at noon on Friday, check-in and say, “Oh, I meant this.”

Give specific directions, or shut up and be glad it got done.


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