“No, that’s still not what I had in mind. You need to do it over again.” If we ever hear those words (or similar ones) coming out of our own mouths, a bright red flag should go up immediately for one of the following two reasons:

  1. The person we’re speaking to is either so dense or so obstinate that our clearly phrased instructions have been to no avail.
  2. We failed in one of our most important administrative responsibilities by assuming that the other person would read our mind and understand what we meant instead of what we said.

In fact, it’s usually not too difficult to tell which of these two possibilities is the cause. If the employee is the only person with whom we ever have this problem, and others have commented on having had similar issues with respect to his or her work, then the first possibility seems far more likely. But if this is a situation we face frequently, particularly if we ever find ourselves thinking, “No one around here ever seems to get it,” then watch out: the problem isn’t them; it’s us.

The delegation problem

Expecting employees to read our minds is usually caused by one of three misperceptions. The first is that we think we’ve delegated a responsibility when we haven’t really surrendered full ownership of it. Don’t get me wrong: delegation doesn’t mean abandoning our responsibilities; when someone undertakes a project in our name, we’re still ultimately accountable for the quality of the result. But expecting a high level of quality is different from expecting someone to do things exactly the way we would. Delegation always includes some loss of control, and the question a supervisor needs to ask is not “Is this how I would have done it?” but “Does this adequately achieve the goal?” If we can’t accept variation from the ideal that’s in our minds, then it probably wasn’t a good task to delegate in the first place. If you’ve ever worked in a department or college where one of your predecessors is now a faculty member, you know how frustrating it can be if that person ever looks disapprovingly at a decision you’ve made and says, “That’s not how I would have done it.” We’re actually doing much the same thing when we repeatedly ask for rewrites of documents or reconsiderations of proposals because they don’t fit the ideal we’ve imagined for them. If the result will satisfy us only by being done in one specific way, we probably should have been doing it ourselves all along.

The explanation problem

The second misperception occurs when we falsely believe that our instructions have been perfectly clear. For instance, a faculty member gives us some information we requested. “That’s fine,” we say. “But this is just a memo. I need it as a spreadsheet. Go back and do the same thing, but this time make it a spreadsheet.” The employee nods agreeably, leaves your office, and returns a few hours later, not with the data organized into a neat table with totals, averages, and standard deviations calculated as you had envisioned but instead with the exact same words that had appeared in the memo now cut and pasted onto a spreadsheet. Whose fault was it that you didn’t receive what you wanted? “But everyone knows how a spreadsheet works,” you may say. And these days that assumption is often correct. But it isn’t always correct, and it’s easy to mistake the things we learned ourselves only a few years (or even a few days) ago as knowledge that “everyone” has. In our hypothetical example, the employee actually gave you what you requested; the problem was that you didn’t explain what you wanted clearly. There are two good strategies for avoiding this explanation problem:

  • For large or important projects, don’t just provide instructions; also provide an example or template. Verbal explanations are too frequently misunderstood. When you really need the result to look a certain way, don’t just tell people what you want; show them.
  • Make sure that the other person can describe to you what he or she will do before the project is under way. In doing so, don’t just ask, “Do you understand?” Too often that questions either comes across as “What, were you too stupid to comprehend?” or is too vague. A person who doesn’t understand often doesn’t know that he or she doesn’t understand. It’s far better to say something like, “Just to make sure that I haven’t been unclear—and that does happen—explain to me in your own words what you’re going to do.”

The inflexibility problem

Perhaps the most insidious misperception of all is that, simply because something isn’t done in a particular way, it isn’t done right. This challenge is particularly great for administrators who are hired into an institution from the outside. They may be used to practices at one or two institutions and think, “That’s how they do things everywhere.” But there’s no way at all that we can know how things are done “everywhere.” And even if we could, there’s no guarantee that a procedure in place at countless other institutions must be the best procedure at a school where the context, history, and people are all different. In these cases, our own limited understanding—or worse, our inability to be flexible—causes us to reject an idea because it doesn’t fit into our understanding of how higher education works. It’s perfectly fine and even beneficial to ask, “Why is this the policy that’s used here?” or “Why do you find it helpful to achieve this goal in this way?” By asking these questions, we may learn something new ourselves or possibly cause the other person to question whether there may indeed be a better way to perform a task. But when we dismiss a result out of hand because it wasn’t achieved using a procedure with which we’re familiar, we’re not only being obstinate, but we’re also expecting the other person to read our mind.

Jeffrey L. Buller is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from “Reading the Boss’ Mind: When Less Really Is Less” in Academic Leader 28.9(2012)1,2 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.