Don’t Fill in the Blanks: Mixed Messages Lead to Poor Results

Early in my marriage, my wife gave me vague guidance to “pick up some groceries” on my way home. This seemed like an easy enough task; after all, I had been feeding myself for years. I was sure to get the basics, such as bread, milk, and eggs, and rounded out the cart with some reasonable dining options. Mission accomplished, or so I thought. As we unloaded bags full of bachelor staples such as chicken wings, nachos, and Capt’n Crunch, my wife realized that further trips to the grocery store would require very specific guidance or at least some supervisor engagement. Her job-specific expectations did not align with my understanding of what “good looks like.” Was this misalignment a failure on my part, or was poor communication to blame? After all, when I was given every option in the grocery store, could she really be mad when I “filled in the blanks” and chose the options that looked right to me? (The answer is yes; yes, she can.)

As a supervisor, are you also guilty of sending messages which are open to interpretation? Do you allow others to “fill in the blanks” with their definition of what good looks like? Can you really be upset when someone fails to read your mind and performs a task differently than you imagined? If you’re like most people, you have gained a wealth of experience, and much of it was paid for in bumps, bruises, and blood. You’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but now you’re better at it. Your workers don’t have the benefit of that experience and aren’t likely to make the same choices as you if they are not given specific guidance.

It may not seem like it, but nobody comes to work thinking, “I’m gonna’ mess stuff up today.” Workers try their best to perform the tasks given to them by drawing from the information provided by their supervisor and then filling in the gaps with their best judgment. This judgment does not include their supervisor's experience if it is not communicated to them. Don’t leave blanks for your workers to fill in. Be complete and specific in your directions. Don’t just tell them to do a job; inform them on how to do the successfully and safely. It’s not “micro-managing”; it’s setting standards and expectations to help set them up for success.

Do you find yourself trying to fill in the blanks as a worker? Are you faced with multiple options on how to complete a task? Do you find yourself using your best judgment to meet your supervisor’s expectations but aren’t 100% sure what that is? Effective communication is a two-way street. Your supervisor may assume you know the best course of action; you might think you know, too. If you don’t take a moment to question your actions or to understand your role fully, you are setting yourself up for failure. You have to be your own advocate. You need to speak up and ask for specific guidance or solicit some operating experience from your supervisor. Understand that most supervisors would rather answer 100 “dumb questions” from you than answer that one hard question from leadership, “Why did that accident happen to your crew?”

When you are given guidance, make sure you completely understand the expectations. It’s not enough to know what to do; you also need to know how to do it. If you find yourself with several options to complete a task, stop and get clarification from your supervisor. Don’t try to fill in the blanks.

Think about how we communicate with each other every day. Ensure you are giving direction which is specific and not open to interpretation. Make sure your people have a clear understanding of what good looks like. Simply saying “Be safe” is not enough; give them actionable guidance. “On this job, you need to keep your hands out of the line of fire by…” or “Make sure you use the following PPE for this task…” or “Here are the human performance tools we are going to use on this job….” Be complete and specific, and don’t leave any blanks for your workers to fill in.

My wife and I learned this lesson the hard way with my ill-fated “get some groceries” outing. Trips to the grocery store these days now involve a detailed list, which is starting to look like a work package, and generally some direct supervisor engagement. I think her next move is to require procedure usage and place-keeping with a circle/slash since there is still the occasional box of Capt’n Crunch, which finds its way into the basket (a clear Foreign Material Exclusion violation).

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