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YE Ji-Eun

Giving Clear Work Instructions

YE Ji-Eun

July 26, 2011

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The Biography of Lord Ping Yuan from the Shiji, the first systematic Chinese historical text, tells the story of a servant named Mao Siu, who played a vital role in saving his homeland.

During the Warring States period in 257 BC, the Qin state attacked Handan, the capital of Zhao, which did not have enough troops to defend itself. The king of Zhao selected his younger brother, Prince Ping Yuan, to go to Chu State to request assistance. Hearing of this, Mao Siu volunteered to accompany the prince but Prince Ping Yuan hesitated, saying "A talented person is like an awl that sticks out through a bag. You have been in my service for three years yet I have never heard of you." Mao Sui answered, "I ask that you put me in your bag. If you had done so earlier, you would have seen my true abilities."

The prince finally decided to give the servant a chance to prove himself and Mao Siu ended up contributing greatly in negotiations with the king of Chu for reinforcements. This story shows the importance of not only trusting employees but also giving them clear instructions to perform their tasks.

Flash forward to today and we find many workplaces still have not grasped the importance of effective internal communications. Samsung Economic Research Institute posed this survey question recently to both managers and employees: "What improvements are needed when giving and receiving instructions?" The responses point to shortcomings in clarity, explanation and resources needed to complete an assignment.

Better sharing of information and material associated with the instructions was suggested by 34.8% of the respondents. Elimination of ambiguity in the final results being sought was selected by 33.6% of the managers and employees and 32.1% said instructions should be clearer, with employees given a chance to ask clarifying questions.

One of the main causes in the communication failure is managers who incorrectly assume employees know what they're talking about. That is, they give instructions on a "you know what I mean" basis. As such, there is a failure to provide sufficient information, including the background, context and importance of the task at hand, and those who receive the instructions are apt to fall short of successfully fulfilling their duties.

Stanford University conducted an interesting experiment on this very problem. A subject was asked to tap the rhythm of a popular and well-known song. Because the subject had prior knowledge, he/she naturally assumed that others would also easily recognize the song. However, much to everybody's surprise, a mere 2.5% were able to identify the song. The same situation arises when giving orders with the assumption that the receiving person fully understands the context of the instructions.

The second obstacle is the unilateral, top-down form of giving orders. This produces a passive workforce in which critical and creative thinking is not cultivated. In short, employees don't think outside of the box to achieve that extra result needed. To break this mold, employees should be asked questions and encouraged to express their opinions. For example, "Is this sufficient for an environmental assessment?" or "Can you think of any other alternatives?" Namely, the door must always be left open for employees to contribute ideas by clearly conveying the specifics of the task.

Taking that one step further, an environment should be created where employees can work autonomously with as much authority as possible. Giving clear instructions should not be mistaken for micro-managing every last detail.

The PC firm Lenovo, China's largest private company, received global recognition after taking over IBM's PC division in 2004. The firm's founder and CEO Lui Chuanzhi is an advocate of the "Engine Culture," in which the CEO is the main engine and the employees are the subsidiary engines of the main engine and not merely its gears. In other words, employees should be allowed to think and act freely in order to do better. When employees are given a task, they should also be given a certain level of authority so as to raise both efficiency and morale.

For effective communication, managers must learn to ask themselves a series of questions:

•  Is the work necessary?

•  Is the person assuming the task right for the position? Is there a problem in the allocation of the work?

•  Am I clearly explaining what the desired end result is and how and by when it should be completed?

•  Are there specific guidelines on the reporting method and the scale and scope of the task?

•  How can I help?

Clear and precise orders not only ensure that the work gets done but is the first step to enhancing both the employees' capabilities and the organization.

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