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Get everyone on the same page

(April 16, 2024 Newsletter)

In my first ever internship, my supervisor gave me a project that I worked on for a while before showing him a draft. When I did, he blinked at the screen in shock and said something like, “This is absolutely not at all what I meant. It’s so off base that I think I’ll save it to show others what happens when you don’t give clear instructions.”


The last time you realized you were miscommunicating with a team member, what was your initial reaction?

  • Confusion: Wait, if this is what I mean, what do they mean?

  • Blame: Was I not clear? I’m sure I was…

  • Frustration: I don’t get how we ended up in this situation (again!).

  • Exasperation: I feel like we’ve been through this a million times!

  • Judgment: Why should I have to be clearer? They should understand what I mean.

Why developing shared language matters

To answer that question, we have to recognize what’s lost in the interim. You (or they) could be wasting time, trust, mental energy, and/or budget while you identify the gap and regroup. Someone I know literally spent two and a half hours last week teaching the wrong person how to take over a project because they both misread their boss’ instructions.

  • If you’re lucky, you catch it quickly and course correct. “Wait… before the meeting wraps: When you said, ‘can you get it to me soon’ could you be more specific?”

  • If not, the gap might only become apparent once you’re in deep into it. “Hey, where’s that doc you said you’d send me?” “Um, I haven’t even started it yet – you didn’t make it seem that urgent.”

What gets in our way?

In my experience, the main reasons why people leaders avoid seeking clarity are:

  • Time – while I don’t think it’s true that time is really a roadblock, people do love claiming they don’t have enough time. The tradeoff? Rushing through instructions will cause a misunderstanding every now and then. Are you willing to risk it? Maybe.

  • Not wanting to seem patronizing – I love this one and hear it surprisingly often. Many of my clients worry that explicitly confirming that people are on the same page will give off the impression that they don’t trust them. The tradeoff? When a miscommunication happens, it will definitely cause or exacerbate a lack of trust.

  • They themselves aren’t totally clear – you might not really know what you’re looking for and assign something hoping the person will hit the nail on the head. The tradeoff? If they miss and you reject it, you’ll likely blame the other person for inaccurately mind reading.

  • Giving the impression that questions are stupid – if people think they’ll be punished for asking for clarification, they won’t. Simple. As the person with more authority, it’s 100% your responsibility to reassure them that that’s not the case.

How to define vague or lofty terminology

Define terms the first (or next) time you use them. Give examples or extra details. “When I say dress more professionally, what I mean is slacks not jeans” or “The background music on the video should be livelier, like the kind on these companies' websites.”

  • Even without being 100% sure what you’re asking for, you’re pointing them in the general direction of what you mean.

  • You can even give keywords that people know always mean something super specific.

Get to a clear agreement by ending meetings with summaries. Ask someone to take shared notes and review them together before the meeting ends or ask the person to feed back their next steps to make sure nothing important was missed.

  • You’ll save time by clarifying upfront and can choose wording that doesn’t seem patronizing to you.

Invite them to ask for clarification. Back to my internship horror story, I wish the guy had emphasized that I should feel free to ask him questions along the way to make sure I was in the right direction.

  • Don’t ask “do you have any questions” – instead, use the more open-ended “what questions do you have?”

  • If the person says they’re all set, offer a clear open invitation: “Feel free to reach out at any point if you want me to clarify something” and then encourage questions that come with something like “I’m glad you asked – better to get on the same page early” or even a simple “That’s a great question.”

Everything I shared above works in 1:1 situations or with teams. As always, I welcome your input – what are your favorite tips for getting everyone on the same page?


The Coaching Corner

Reframing your disappointment

  1. Why didn’t you tell me sooner --> It’s a good thing we’re catching it now.

  2. I wish I had known so I could have stepped in --> Next time, loop me in sooner if you’ll want my help.

  3. I expected you’d be able to handle this --> I want you to be able to own these kinds of situations, so let’s talk through how we can get you there.


What do all these reframes have in common? The left-hand phrases are in past tense and the right-hand ones are future tense. It’s a simple tool that turns anything into a teaching moment.



Last week David Brooks hit the nail on the head in his new op-ed, "The Quiet Magic of Middle Managers." As he says toward the end, "The best of them don’t resolve our disputes but lift us above them so that we can see disagreements from a higher and more generous vantage point." It's as if David Brooks summarized my mission for me... helping you all become "the best of them" or to embody this ideal for your own middle managers.


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