Canada Association of Tourism Employees

Giving Directions 101: For Managers And Trainers

Managers and the art of giving instructions

Sun Tzu was 500 BC A Chinese general and master strategist. His book The Art of War is one of the most respected treatises on strategy and required reading for senior staff officers in most of the world’s armed forces. As we know, since World War II, the business world has taken a lot from the military in terms of strategy, logistics, management, and operations. As such, this 13-chapter gem, only about 10,000 words in length, is recommended read for advanced strategy management courses.

The book contains a story that provides managers with a good lesson in giving instructions. The emperor, who has read Sun Tzu’s book, calls him to his palace and tells him to put his theories into practice. He asks Sun Tzu to train his 180 concubines into an elite combat force for his personal protection. Sun Tzu orders the women to form two ranks and places two of the emperor’s favorite concubines as leaders at the head of each group.

He tells them to obey when he gives orders (“march forward”, “turn”, etc.). When he asks if they understood the instructions, they nod. But when Sun Tzu gives the order, the women burst out laughing. Sun Tzu calmly says that if the instructions are not clear, it is the general’s fault and repeats the instructions. But again the women start giggling after receiving an order. Then Sun Tzu tells that the general is to blame if the instructions aren’t clear. But if the directions are clear and not followed, then it is the officials’ fault. He orders the guards to behead the leaders at the head of the two lines and ignores the emperor’s loud pleas to spare them. Then the ladies perform the drill perfectly!

The moral of the story for managers is simple. It is your responsibility to ensure that your instructions are clear and understandable. If not, it’s your fault. When they are clear, employees are responsible. There are of course other ways to hold them accountable than beheading them. Telling people what to do seems like a very simple and elementary skill, but it is surprising to see that even seasoned managers give ambiguous and ineffective instructions that lead to major crises.

You may think that instructions are usually given to inexperienced or trainees, but this is not always the case. Highly competent and qualified specialists also need appropriate guidance for the successful completion of critical, high-value tasks.

Tips for effective instruction

1. Make expected results clear

Make sure you understand exactly what you expect from the person, result, or performance that you expect by following these directions. This part is the most important. Ensuring the outcome is a battle half won. Can you write down or articulate what you expect clearly and concisely?

Most managers are casual about this part. If you are unsure of the outcome yourself, you will surely transfer the same ambiguity to the listener. Even if the person does not understand some of your instructions, they will face the situation when they are clear about the expected outcome. If you properly appreciate her intelligence and ingenuity, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

2. Don’t give too much

The more instructions, the less understanding and the higher the likelihood of non-compliance. It is easier for the human brain 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 limit them to a maximum of five. Easily understandable language and logically sequential steps help. If you can write them down and ask your coworkers to read them aloud for clarity, this is a surefire way to succeed.

3. Go slowly

People tend to rush through when giving directions. They speak almost at the speed of their thoughts. But people’s listening skills can be pretty poor. We speak faster than we can understand. You will be surprised how much the listener has missed when you ask them to repeat what was said. With this in mind, the instructor must reduce his speed to 50% of his normal speed.

4. Check understanding

It may sound presumptuous, but asking the person to explain what they understood will almost always surprise you with the gaps in understanding or simple misunderstanding. This can also be done diplomatically. We don’t have to make the listener feel like they’re an idiot. We can always ask if you have any suggestions or doubts.

5. Assure support

Assure the person that they can come back to you at any time in case of doubt. People tend to give directions and assume that they will be understood and perfectly remembered. It is always good practice to end the session knowing that you will be available if you encounter a difficult spot. It’s also a good idea to monitor progress, especially among trainees.

Giving instructions in eLearning

When it comes to self-directed, asynchronous learning like eLearning, it becomes even more difficult to give instructions to learners as there is no real-time, face-to-face interaction with the learner. We are disabled because communication is devoid of the non-verbal element that makes up more than 70% of all communication.

The usual instructions like “click next”, “click here to read more”, “drag and drop”, etc. are now obsolete as learners are so skilled to proceed without such basic instructions. However, my own research has shown that culture has an important say in this. Eastern cultures value clear and detailed instructions as opposed to western cultures, where step-by-step instructions are seen as unnecessary.

In eLearning or any self-directed learning program, instructions must be a seamless part of the user experience (UX). The graphical user interface (GUI), navigation, colors, animations, and other interactions should make the user experience intuitive and eliminate the need for explicit instructions. Learners shouldn’t fumble around trying to figure out what to do next. A great example of intuitive design can be seen on the screens of most smartphones.

An end note

Miscommunication is widespread in all communication channels – oral or written. Most business or personal problems arise from a misunderstanding of intent. It is always up to the person sharing information to make sure they are understood the way they want them to be. Most misunderstandings arise from unconfirmed assumptions, lengthy conversations, emotional overtones, unnecessary rush, inappropriate body language, and lack of the basic courtesy to ask the other person if they understood you.

You’ll also need to change your communication style depending on who is on the other side. Some may need detailed explanations, while others may completely agree with you even before you even complete the sentence. Since communication is one of the top skills in management, we as managers and trainers can hardly afford misunderstandings.

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