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The one question you should ask when you’re given vague instructions

Here’s how to clear up confusion without appearing incompetent.

The one question you should ask when you’re given vague instructions
[Illustration: LuckyTD/iStock]

Your boss sat you down yesterday and outlined your next project. The problem? You’re completely confused about the direction you’re supposed to take it in, making your head feel like it’s buzzing with cartoon birds (without the anvil having fallen on your head).

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Don’t stress! The key is to catch your confusion early on and address it–because the further along you go in completing the assignment without a clear path, the further away you’re likely to end up from your boss’s original plan.

Of course, you could just tell your boss you’re lost or ask for more direction–that’s completely fair. But if you’re worried about coming across as incompetent or you don’t have the kind of relationship with your manager in which you can be totally honest, ask this one question:

What greater goal is this tied to?

Why is this so effective? For one thing, it makes you look really, really good. By focusing on goals rather than the more tedious stuff (or exclaiming, “Why am I doing this in the first place?”), you show you care about contributing to the greater success of the team or the company. And you prove you’re someone who thinks long term and big picture.


Related: How to deal with 7 uncomfortable situations you’ll face in your first job


It also forces your boss to ask themselves this question. Maybe you’re confused because there isn’t a clear goal attached to the project. By making them clarify, you’re better able to understand the purpose, making it a whole lot easier to strategize.

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In addition, it holds your boss (and you) accountable. If at or toward completion your manager seems unsatisfied, you can come back to their answer and explain why you decided to go the direction you did. Then you can have a discussion figuring out whether you hit that goal, or how you can better accomplish it going forward.


Related: Five steps to resolve work conflicts before they get personal 


Besides, goals are great. They help us move forward, and they make our work feel more fulfilling.

And don’t we all want to do work that has a purpose?


This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission. 

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