Acknowledgement in All Directions

Acknowledgement in All Directions by Laura Stack #productivityMy father is a retired USAF Colonel, and I spent many of my childhood years living on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Growing up in the military environment, I soon learned that a soldier or sailor (or child) who receives a verbal order from an officer must repeat it immediately, often word for word, to acknowledge that he or she received it accurately. This especially holds true for the Navy, as you may have noticed in war movies like Battleship and Crimson Tide. While this practice may make for some dramatic moments on the silver screen, that’s hardly its purpose. The military developed this particular Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for a simple and sobering reason: If a poorly relayed message results in the wrong action taken, the results can literally prove disastrous.

Consider what would have happened in the movie Crimson Tide if the Executive Officer hadn’t insisted on repetition and acknowledgement of the partial order the sub received before it went incommunicado. The world would have literally ended in fire, as the sub fired off its nuclear missiles at its assigned targets.

As a leader, your business miscommunications may not have devastating results, but they can certainly damage your team’s productivity. If that happens, the accountability lies squarely with you, not with the employee who misinterpreted your command. Therefore, acknowledgement and clarification of all communications, whether minor or entirely game changing, becomes absolutely essential.

Whenever you receive a message from someone—from above or below you in the chain of command—acknowledge its receipt as quickly as possible, even if you can’t supply an answer right away. A simple, “Just letting you know I received your message. I’ll look into it and will get back to you tomorrow” will suffice, and then hold yourself accountable to that promise.

Similarly, ask for acknowledgement and an estimated time of completion from anyone with whom you correspond; if they don’t respond, ping them again in a few days. There’s no need for rudeness, but be assertive and persistent. Send them an email nudge or pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I sent you a message about such-and-such. What do you think?” They may not have received the message, or it may be buried in a disorganized mess. Maybe it passed under their radar due to a lack of reliability, or your technology simply failed you in this instance.

However, you can’t let anyone use the claim they didn’t get the message as an excuse for not getting something done. Get an acknowledgement—not so you can cover yourself later—but so you can make sure that person understands what you need. Confirmation of a request makes it much less likely something will go wrong down the road.

In a related vein, let your team know you want them to ask questions if they don’t understand a request. Encourage them to get clarification, and exercise patience when they do. If you act impatient, you will discourage them from asking in the future, and their lack of understanding may result in unproductive errors and rework. The same goes for you. If you don’t understand exactly what your requestor wants, keep asking questions until you do. It’s more productive to go back and forth a few times than to find out later you did something incorrectly due to a miscommunication. I’ve seen instances of someone spending hours on a task that should have taken 15 minutes.

Accountability action step:

While the potential for confusion always exists in human interaction, solid, clear communication at all levels will minimize such confusion. If you follow these simple rules, not only will people not waste time (and therefore productivity and profitability) trying to figure out your instructions, they won’t make as many mistakes. Mistakes also waste time, and time really is money, so it’s crucial to avoid miscommunication as much as possible.