According to a survey by Gallup, managers are 50% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree they "have too much work to do”. Asking an overworked boss for more direction at work can be daunting.
The ideal solution to this situation is to be more proactive. However, some workplaces value obedience more than proactiveness. As a result, employees may feel that they need direction at work before they can accomplish anything.
There could be several reasons for a lack of direction at work, from an employee’s personal inhibitions about asking for direction to a lack of culture fit in the workplace.
This article will go over causes, solutions, and communication tips for if you lack direction at work.
Why do I have no direction at work?
Generally speaking, most employees tend to want to wait for instructions before doing any work. There are a few reasons for waiting for instructions.
Traditional education is a structure of lecture and assignments, where individuals are conditioned to do what they are told. It is a mental shift to realize that in the work world it is both possible and better to figure out what to do and just do it.
Fear of either being wrong about what should be done or about drawing the wrath of the leadership if the choice (right or wrong) is not what the leader wanted. It is normally safer to do nothing. While inaction can lead to underperformance and mediocre results, it rarely leads directly to condemnation.
You must learn to proactively see and do what needs to be done without instruction or confirmation. Proactive employees (who take valuable steps independently) are more highly valued than even reliable employees who only do what is asked of them.
What do you do when you have no direction at work
Understand Organizational Goals
The way to avoid needing to talk to your boss all the time is to be able to correctly figure out what they would want you to do. At work, this means seeking to understand the goals of your company, your boss, or your group.
Professionals need to switch from seeing themselves as order takers (victims of what others tell them to do) to thinkers, who look at their work and see the purpose behind their jobs. The key question to ask here is “why?”
- Why are you being asked to do a particular thing?
- Why is that thing a priority?
- Why did your company hire you?
- Why does your company exist?
By getting at the why behind the work a professional can then focus on the actual value, not just tasks that may or may not get to the goal.
At their core, companies exist to turn natural resources and human labor into products, for which they then generate profit. A cabinet maker takes wood, adds his skill and time, and produces a wardrobe. Simplified for the modern knowledge worker (lawyer, accountant, programmer, etc), the company trades you money in exchange for your time and effort, and asks you to complete work for which they can be paid more than your salary.
While the connection between your daily tasks and the company making more money may not be obvious, that is the underlying goal. The most fundamental question is “how does your company make money and how does your work relate to that?”
The next way to figure out the company values is to see what they say about themselves. Does the company have an obvious product? Does the company have a stated mission? Assuming they do, you can reason that the company intends to make money in the way they are saying is their mission using their products.
The next level is what they may say about their values. You can reason about how your work relates to the way the company says it wants to pursue it’s market success.
Finally, at the lowest level, your group and your particular manager have goals. Those goals may be small in comparison, but they are related to the larger goals of the company. A Starbucks store may have the goal to increase its sales 10% over last year. This is small and local as compared to corporate goals the company may have in the food and beverage industry, but it is also a goal you can think about at a personal level. If you work behind the counter at a Starbucks, what can I do to get 10% more people to come to the store or to get the people who are coming to spend 10% more?
Use Prioritization Tools
Once priorities are decided, it may be worth communicating or confirming them. “Hey manager, I’m going to work on X first, then on Y, unless you prefer another focus.”
Here are some tools on making good decisions at work:
When you decide to take on a particular task or project, you choose not to take on another task. A choice to spend time on A means not spending time on B. Use this principle to make calculated decisions about how you spend your time.
Ask for Input
Prioritizing does include asking for input. You can ask the boss, your peers, other stakeholders, and customers which things are most important or will have the most impact.
When you work for someone, they have a say in your priorities. Therefore, you need to make sure that you are on the same page about the work that is best suited for you. You can ask them the following questions to align with your goals:
- “I think A is more important than B because of X, do you agree?”
- “After I complete B, I will work on C next. How does that sound to you?”
By asking these questions, you are inviting them to have a say in your priorities while at the same time maintaining your independence by not asking them to define your priorities for you.
Popularized by US President Eisenhower, it divides tasks along two axes: urgent vs. non-urgent and important vs. unimportant.
Ideally, you want to be moving in the following order of quadrants: Do -> Schedule -> Delegate -> Delete.
Delegation is a potent tool in our toolkits that often gets overlooked. It is an efficient use of everyone’s time to delegate work that no longer requires your skills. Your busy work can quickly become someone else’s growth opportunity.
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, you can also delegate to your peers. It allows you and your peer to do work aligned with your skills and interests while efficiently using time.
Considerations about your Workplace
Assess what the company values, or what your boss values. Try to figure out a small starting point for an independent project.
Try to operationalize the project and make it manageable.
- What are the steps?
- Where would you start?
- When would you start?
- When will you be done by?
Then circle back and let your boss know what you did.
How do I Tell my Boss I need more Guidance?
Ask for support at key points
Asking for support from your boss requires a delicate balance. Ideally, you want to keep your boss in the loop while minimizing getting into the weeds with them about minor details.
Therefore, the best approach is to share progress and roadblocks at key points. If they have feedback to share, then you get support. If they don’t have feedback, then you are on the right track, so continue doing what you are doing.
Consider their workload
When you go to your manager with an issue with which you need help, approach the discussion as a collaboration. If they are too overworked, consider lending a hand with some of their work. That will free up their time, which will allow them to take a look at your roadblocks and advise appropriately.
Approach your boss with ideas
Figure out what the issue is before you approach your boss. When you figure out the roadblocks try to come up with a few potential solutions. They don’t have to be perfect, they just need to be options.
Styles of Bosses
It may surprise you to learn that most managers do not get any formal training in the art of management. As a result, they learn by practicing on you. Even business degrees do not have many classes on managing people. They primarily focus on subjects such as finance, marketing, etc.
To communicate effectively with your supervisor, you need to figure out their managerial style.
Bosses come in varied forms. This variance exists because:
Bosses have different personality types, much like other human beings. They can be introverted or extroverted, detail-oriented, or focused on the big-picture.
The company culture strongly influences the kind of boss you are likely to have. Companies like Whole Foods and Starbucks are known for their employee focus and reward a culture where employees care for each other. Therefore, bosses in those organizations are likely to be caring, understanding, and kind, unlike companies that are laser-focused on hitting sales targets.
No boss is purely one of these. Depending on the situation, a boss may switch from one of these types to the other. However, most of the time, your boss will have a dominant style that will reflect one of these types.
Should I Quit
Nearly 75% of people quit their jobs because of their bosses. However, the communication strategies listed above can allow us to re-evaluate a decision to quit. Before you decide to switch jobs, here are some things to consider:
Is the feeling of wanting to quit solely due to your job environment?
Often, mental wellness challenges such as a lack of self-worth, anxiety, or depression can manifest as apathy or dissatisfaction at work. Even if you quit this job, those feelings will follow you to your next job. Therefore, it is vital to work on those before quitting.
Are you getting enough feedback? Is the feedback valid and actionable?
Are you able to make and execute a plan based on the feedback? If you have gotten actionable feedback from your manager, attempt to work on that before quitting.
It is worth noting that quitting may be warranted in some situations if management cannot address the situation adequately. Examples include sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, racist abuse, etc. There are no skills to build or feedback to consider in this situation. The priority needs to be switching to a safer environment. 79% of employees would refuse a higher-paying job from a company that failed to act against sexual harassment.