Here's exactly what to say when you're confused about what your manager wants

WOCinTech Chat/Flickr/AttributionGet your manager to be specific about the indicators of success.
  • John Heggestuen leads research for Business Insider Intelligence and manages a team of more than 20 analysts and editors in New York and London.
  • He says that when managers are unclear about what they want, it wastes time and can leave employees demoralized and frustrated.
  • In his career, he’s found that asking his managers to define what success looks like is an effective way to make sure they are on the same page.
  • He advises getting your manager to prioritise tangible indicators of success and sending a follow-up email to outline what was discussed in order to avoid miscommunication down the road.

It can be demoralising when you are unsure what your manager wants from you.

Your hard work can end up missing the mark, and it leaves you feeling like the goal posts were moved and your time was wasted. While it’s your manager’s responsibility to set clear targets, you can help them help you.

First, put yourself in your manager’s shoes

While it’s a manager’s responsibility to set the agenda, it’s also not easy to communicate clearly in every situation – big teams, complex projects, and a fast pace can get in the way. I know this from my own experience leading research for Business Insider Intelligence, where I manage over 20 analysts and editors – my directions are unclear more often than I’d like to admit.

Even the very best managers are unclear on occasion. Understanding that your manager’s job is difficult will help you diffuse negative emotions and focus on finding a solution to the problem.

Ask, ‘What does success look like for this project?’

This is a really powerful question because it’s not about how to do your job, but it is about the desired results. In an ideal relationship, your manager sets up the goal posts and you kick the ball in the net.


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Asking your manager to define success focuses on what they want instead of how to get there. For example, if you ask your manager to define success for launching a new product, they might define revenue targets, the budget, the timeline, and who needs to be involved.

Then ask, ‘What are the most important indicators of success?’

The criteria for success aren’t always equally important and it will be helpful to figure out what your manager cares about most. Asking your manager to prioritise indicators of success is a smooth way to get information about where you should focus your energy.

It’s also a way to avoid asking why you are being asked to do a project, which risks coming off sceptical of the goal or ignorant of its importance. For example, if your manager says that the stakeholders involved are the most important part of the project, the goal might be relationship-building to open up a new opportunity, as opposed to generating as much revenue as possible.

Help your manager define success

If your manager is unclear about what success looks like, they probably haven’t thought about it enough – and that’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate next-level potential. Help your manager get to a place where they can define success.


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The best way to do this is to break the project into smaller pieces where success can be defined clearly. For example, you might suggest that you come up with a plan for a new a product launch that will involve a particular stakeholder and you’ll have it ready for further discussion by the end of the week.

Send a follow-up email of the plan and the indicators of success

After you’ve done the work to get on the same page as your manager, it’s worth doing a little more work to ensure you stay on the same page. Writing a follow-up email will help you think through if there is anything else you need to ask about to be successful and it will give your manager an opportunity to add additional info that may not have come up in the conversation. It also a good reference for evaluating the success of the project.

John Heggestuen is the Vice President of Research for Business Insider Intelligence, Business Insider’s premium market research service covering digital transformation. He manages a team of over 20 analysts and editors in New York and London.

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