Your Team Can’t Read Your Mind28 July, 2015 / Articles
When you live or work with people for a while, it’s easy to assume that they can read your mind and that you can read theirs. Whether it’s a spouse or a long-time team member, you may presume that you know what they’re thinking and that you can save time and effort by not having to spell everything out. Unfortunately, though, mind reading is a risky short cut, and is more likely to backfire than not.
At work, mind reading can lead to confusion, such as when a manager assumes that his team members already know what he wants: “You know what kind of effort I need here.” But what if they don’t? Instead of saving time, you’ve wasted it, which could have serious consequences. For example, you may need to re-launch a new product because important team members weren’t fully aware of the requirements (even though you assumed they would be). Taking these short cuts can also contribute to poor morale (“I don’t know how my boss wants the earnings report done because she never tells me”) and a lack of teamwork (“I can’t help my colleague because he doesn’t let me know when he needs help”).
It’s always better to take the time to give or get the full story before you take action. That way, you avoid wasting time, effort, and your colleagues’ goodwill.
When you’re asking a team member to produce something for you, start with the big picture — the what and the why: “We need to create a new kind of report for our current project, something that everyone in the organization can understand no matter what their background is. This will help everybody in the company work with us.”
From there, spell out the details: who, when, where, and how. “We need Eleanor and Robert to outline what will go into the report and email that to us by Monday. Then we need for each of you to give them your content in PDF form by Wednesday. Lana and Jeff will then edit the report and pass it on to all of us to review on Thursday so that we can put it out to the rest of the company on the website next Friday. Any questions?”
Of course, there may be people who have already heard those directions, so if you’re speaking in person, don’t waste their time by repeating yourself over and over. If you’re communicating by email, they’ll be able to scan it quickly. But remember that people may need to go back later for more information. They may be in the middle of the project when they need a refresher on what happens next. So close your initial conversation, whether it’s face-to-face or online, with a “Please ask me if you have any questions” or “Please save the written version of this plan and let me know if I’ve left anything out” to demonstrate your willingness to say more and help them attend to the details.
Explicitly tell your team that you don’t expect anybody to read your mind. No question is a dumb question. If you’ve already explained a project once and someone asks you to repeat some information or give more details, welcome their question or request, and demonstrate that you’re glad they asked.
Master of the “dumb question” myself, I learned in business school that while it’s not always easy to ask the question that others seem to know the answer to, sometimes it’s essential to do so. When I entered Wharton’s required first-semester class in quantitative analysis, I hadn’t taken a math course in a long time. The professor was tough, fast-talking, and formidable. He didn’t take it kindly when someone asked a question that was anything but brilliant. Yet I knew that I needed to, or I wouldn’t pass the course. As I’d raise my hand week after week, some of my classmates would roll their eyes as if to say, “Oh no, she’s going to ask another question and he’s going to humiliate her once more.” And he did, but I got the information I needed. So did many of my classmates, who later thanked me for asking the “dumb” questions they’d also needed answers to. (By the way, our professor eventually congratulated me for my good scores and for my engagement in class.)
Make it easy for your team members to understand what you want. Be generous about answering their questions, make their understanding a priority, and foster an environment of open communication and information sharing. You can do that by modeling the behavior above. You can also applaud people when they make efforts to fully inform their colleagues and keep them in the loop.
No one on your team should expect or encourage mind reading. Instead, spell things out — and ask that your team members do the same.