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21st Century Management

Industrial Management's quarterly column by Dan Carrison

Ask for a plan

In my previous column, we explored some of the ways in which management style (“hurried,” “strong, silent” and “authoritarian”) can inhibit clear communication. But how does a patient, talkative and democratic manager know that she has really communicated – and not just verbalized – a set of instructions to an employee?

One of the best ways to feel the wonderful certainty of being “of one mind” with your department and team members is to ask for a plan.

Asking employees for a brief, written plan –  in which they describe how they intend to fulfill your instructions –  is the surest way to know that your subordinate has understood the mission thoroughly. It is also the surest way to know if you, as a manager, have communicated effectively.

Writing a plan allows the employee to step away from the immediate pressure of being with you and gather his thoughts. Most of us are at least slightly self-conscious in front of our boss, and many lower-level employees are very shy before management. Indeed, their minds can become so clouded with self-consciousness that they may nod their heads in agreement without truly understanding what is expected. Asking them for a plan gives the employees some space to think about their approach before they take that first step, or misstep.

Knowing that his manager soon will be reading and evaluating his plan, the employee will put himself in the place of his manager and ask himself, “What will she think of this?” That in itself is a worthwhile exercise because by imagining himself as a manager, the employee’s perspective widens.

And, of course, once the manager has the subordinate’s plan in hand, she can offer a suggestion or two, in the form of questions like, “Have you considered this possibility?”

Being required to write a simple plan of attack forces all of us to strategize. At that higher “altitude,” we begin to see the possible consequences of our actions in regard to others in the organization and in regard to the customer. Another virtue of a written plan is its “erasibility.” Chances are it will be revised two or three times before being submitted, and those revisions represent missteps not taken. How many of us wish we had more carefully considered our options before taking spontaneous action at work, or for that matter, in our personal lives? From a managerial perspective, written plans by subordinates offer deep insights into their critical thinking skills; they also provide opportunities to educate the team member through insightful suggestions.

The request for a written plan is, contra-intuitively, all the more important during a crisis, when one might think there is no time for someone to sit at his desk and ponder possible courses of action. But an emergency is precisely the occasion to consider one’s alternatives quickly because impulsive actions taken during a crisis generally are nonrecoverable.

Action plans don’t have to be elaborate; they don’t even have to be typed. A scribbled paragraph is better than nothing because it sets the mind to thinking. The mere act of writing down one’s intentions during an emergency exerts an illusory modicum of control over the situation. However, the confidence resulting from having a plan soon will manifest itself into true control.

The certainty of “being on the same page” with an employee has become all the more desirable within our increasingly diverse and global workplace –  in which managers must lead team members for whom English is a second language. There are occasions when we wish to spare the feelings of employees who have yet to master the language, yet we must be sure that they have understood us. Asking for a couple of paragraphs describing their intended course of action is professional and considerate. And you will sleep better.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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