The art of giving good instructions to employees

by Paul Legrady

The ability to give instructions is a vital skill for an HR pro or manager. And it is a skill—one you can learn and improve on. Here are some guidelines:

Know what you want. Define the task in your own mind, thinking it through step by step up to the result you want. Or do the reverse, starting with your desired result and figuring out how to get there. Then write it down. Reading the steps over in writing gives you a chance to consider better or simpler ways to achieve the same result.

To further test how well you’ve laid out a task or problem, try following your instructions yourself. You may find you’ve left out important facts or details.

Recognize feelings. Once you know what you want, ask yourself how you and the employee involved may feel about the task, because that will affect how you deliver instructions and how they’re heard.

For example, suppose you’re giving instructions to two new employees who have shown up earlier than expected. If you feel angry and pressured, and they feel confused and defensive, those emotions will get communicated more clearly than will any instructions—unless you acknowledge those feelings beforehand.

Don’t demand, don’t apologize. When giving instructions, you’re helping employees—by conveying information they need to succeed—not punishing them. If you sound bossy, your instructions won’t get the attention they deserve.

However, asking questions like “Do you mind doing this for me?” can sound apologetic or misleading. A straightforward, confident, yet considerate manner of speaking makes your instructions easier to hear.

What, then why, then how. Start by telling employees the results you expect and why the task and that outcome are important. Many people can follow instructions better when they understand why the task needs to be done. Only then explain—and, when possible, demonstrate—how to do the task.