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Best Practices: Instructing

How to most effectively get people to do what they're told.

Are you the company owner? The boss? Are you part of the management team? If so, chances are that, on a regular basis, you tell employees what to do. Depending on how high up you are on the management ladder, you might be telling people to tell other people what to do, and they, in turn, are telling someone else.

And, of course, in a perfect world – or, in this case, a perfect company – everyone does just what they’re told.

The single biggest complaint I hear from business owners, however, is how difficult it is to get everyone to do what they’re told. Adding to this frustration is that you not only want people to do what you tell them to, you want them to do it the way you want them to – aka, the correct way.

In the military, telling someone what to do simply requires giving them an order: “Sweep the floor.” And, yes, in our civilian world, there are times when giving an order is the most expeditious method to get people “cracking.” Managers like having the authority to give orders because orders are quick and final. In combat, if a soldier gets an order to kick in a door and lob in a grenade, there’s no time to ask why or discuss the nuances of the task at hand. I like that: “Print it.” Or, “Wrap that van.” I just want it done.

Teachable moments
In my previous life, I did a lot of quality-assurance evaluations of parents and residential treatment providers trying to make up for what kids had not learned. I came to judge their leadership effectiveness based on how well they got their kids or clients to do what they wanted them to, which typically was also what they needed to do.

After all, kids aren’t born knowing how to make a bed, iron a shirt, complete every homework assignment, plan a meal, shop, cook dinner, and clean up after that meal. And it doesn’t help that many of these tasks are “chores” that most people would like to avoid in the first place. The fact is, however, that young people need to know how to do all these things so that they can care for themselves once they become independent. To properly give an instruction, though, you need to become a skilled instructor.

In evaluating the teaching skill of parents and therapists, I categorized a person’s ability to manage others essentially into poor, good, and great, depending on a number of important variables.

The first variable is how completely the person in authority – the instructor – describes the behavior they want performed. Some tasks are more complex than they seem on the surface, particularly in our business. So each task should be broken down into its components and described in detail, and in order. Be sure the listener understands each step; in some cases, demonstrations can amplify the descriptions. And remind the instructed that questions are welcomed.

The second variable is how often the person in authority uses rationales for describing why the person should do this thing they’re being asked to do. I have a rule: Never ask someone to do something if you cannot provide a good reason. And, no, “Because I told you so,” doesn’t count. Tip: Personalizing rationales makes them more effective.

The third variable is: Did they truly instruct? They don’t call it following instructions for nothing. Did the instructor ask the proper questions to ensure that the person was fully informed on how to conduct the task? If this particular task is new to the person, did the authority figure give detailed step-by-step instructions? Did they observe or periodically monitor the person performing the task, especially the first time out? Did they give feedback, both complementary and constructive? Did they encourage the instructed to ask questions and make sure they understood everything? Did they encourage the person to suggest alternative methods?

In our industry, these discussions during instruction provide the manager with an opportunity to ask some clarifying questions. “What speed and pressure do you normally run this?” “What profile do you use for this media?” “How long does it normally take?” “Have you done this with someone else or on your own?”

The final variable is: Did the manager require the person to check back when the task was completed? Checking back is critical. This gives the manager an opportunity to check the work. It gives them an opportunity to give praise and or constructive feedback. It brings immediacy to the process and closure to that interaction. It can become a data point that can determine if an employee is going to be in line for additional responsibilities, promotions, and raises – or whether the company needs to find someone to fill that position in the future.

Authoritarian vs. authoritative
In addition, I graded the instructor on whether he or she achieved compliance by demanding, telling, or asking. I believe the best leaders can get things done and done right most of the time by simply asking. It’s the difference between, “Go get the clothes out of the dryer,” and “Would you get the clothes out of the dryer?” Subtle, but significant.

It’s the difference between someone who is authoritarian versus authoritative. Giving an order falls into the realm of demanding people do what they are told and telling people what to do. They must follow your orders because you are the boss or the general. But an authoritarian leader is less apt to get the best out of his or her employees – because they are more likely to do only what they have to rather than what they are capable of. Nor do orders engender loyalty and respect; just fear.

An authoritative leader, however, works to earn respect and, as a result, people comply with what they are asked to do. The way the respect is earned is by demonstrating they have good reasons for everything so the requests are not arbitrary. These leaders are willing to take the time to explain, they notice what people do, and they praise when appropriate and give constructive feedback that is both fair and accurate.

An instructor’s responsibility
You might think that all these steps are fine for parents with their kids or teaching interventions addressing people with problems. But, you could argue, “We’re dealing with professional adults who are paid to do what they are told.”

Which is just what I thought when I switched careers. At first, I didn’t use these methods as much as I should have. Today, however, I find myself relying on them more everyday.

My company has excellent employees who are gifted with many skills. But if I become cavalier about telling people what to do and assume they simply somehow know what I’m talking about, it plays to the worst and not the best of our people. After all, it’s my responsibility to provide quality instructions. If those directions result in an open, respectful, and instructive dialog about the tasks at hand, so much the better. In the end, we’ll all benefit.

Craig Miller is a principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics (www.pictographics.net) where he is also director of military and law-enforement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.

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