How to Get Clear Direction from Your Boss

Mar 18, 2013
5 Min Read

You know the feeling.

Your manager gives you an assignment, and when you think you have a good handle how to proceed, you go off on your merry way.

You’re independent and a great employee, so you come back a few weeks later – the project complete.  You’re confident because you worked hard and developed a good product.  But much to your dismay, your boss isn’t happy.  She has so many problems with it, you might as well start over.  You thought you understood the assignment, but apparently your approach wasn't what your manager was looking for at all.

Clarify the Message

This happens to all of us occasionally, but if it happens to you more frequently, you need to address the situation.  Your boss may have an ongoing issue communicating expectations and/or details about her thinking, you may have trouble following instructions, or there is room to improve on both sides.  And neither of you is going to be particularly productive if you don’t nip this one in the bud.

The next time your boss tries to delegate an assignment, don’t let her rush you out of the office (or off the phone).  Speaking of which, do not accept a complex assignment over e-mail, IM, or social network because this is a misunderstanding waiting to happen.  Insist on an actual conversation.

In this conversation, get step-by-step directions for how you should approach the project, including the resources you should tap, the content you should include, and the order in which you should accomplish individual tasks.  If something doesn't seem clear right away, ask about it now.  Don’t leave the meeting until you have both agreed on exactly what it is you will be doing.

Check Yourself Frequently

Divide the assignment into phases and set up a follow up with your manager to discuss Phase I.  Especially if there is work involved that requires a lot of heavy lifting on your part, you want to be sure you’re headed in the right direction before doing more.   This check-in will give your boss the opportunity to scrap off-target work early enough in the process so that you don’t have a stroke.

Ensure Final Acceptance

If you manager does not sign off on Phase I or has substantial problems with it, keep re-submitting until these are resolved.  Do not move forward until you are positive that you are able to provide a final product with which she’s satisfied.  You’re essentially forcing her to micromanage you a bit – which admittedly is a bit annoying for you and for her – but hopefully it will prompt her to express her thinking more clearly in the future.

Ask in the Moment

It could be the case that your manager gives terrific direction, but you are not great at following it.  You can improve by listening actively (versus just nodding and smiling) when your boss is explaining an assignment.  Take detailed notes on all of the specifics, and verbally repeat back instructions to your boss that you know right then and there if you have it right.  If in doubt, don’t assume you’ll figure it out.  Better to ask now then have to start over later.

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