Acknowledge Directions in Business and at Work

When I was in the second grade at Bluefield Elementary School in Spring Valley, New York, we had a martinet of a substitute teacher who had obviously been a drill sergeant.  In contrast to our sweet regular teacher, she barked at us to line up in the hall, against the wall, in preparation for lunch.  We dutifully followed her directions.  She then proceeded to walk up and down the line of us students, glaring at us.  “If one of you steps out of line, I’m sending you straight to the Principal’s office!”  I looked up and down the line, and found her directions over-the-top and unnecessary.  We were all standing, in a straight line, against the wall, obeying her directions, not making a sound in return.  Obviously enraged at our lack of response (even though Dad was a Marine, I hadn’t been trained to say “Sir, yes Sir!” yet at the tender age of 7), she barked again:  “Did you hear me?”  That was enough.  I took a wide and deliberate side-step out of line, into the wrath of her path, and smiled.  The martinet was stunned.  “What do you think you’re doing?”  she demanded.  I smiled again.  “I stepped out of line.”  A few minutes later, in the Principal’s office, he asked me why I had stepped out of line – out of character for a Marine-trained child like me.  “Because she wouldn’t stop yelling,” I replied.  “She stopped yelling at us when I stepped out of line.”  The Principal sighed, and sent me on to lunch.

I know:  isn’t it ironic that I grew up to explain and enforce rules and boundaries as part of my vocational path?  My goal, of course, is to preserve dignity, and act consistently out of my value system while doing so.  And that has made all of the difference between me and the martinet.

A business-owner colleague of mine crystallized this memory for me recently while sharing their chagrin at the lack of quality in the responses to their job posting.  “Not one of the applicants responded to the salary history question,” they reported, a bit disappointed. “Not surprising,” I replied.  “They’re concerned about being weeded out of the running.”

“I can understand that,” they continued.  “I would at least like an acknowledgment that the applicant read the directions for responding to the job opening, and indicate in their response that they would prefer not to respond to that question.  No response implies that they don’t have good reading comprehension; or even worse, that they can’t understand and follow work direction.”

Excellent assessment, and point.  There are definitely some work directions that are non-negotiable:  e.g., the office is on fire and you need to leave now.  Acknowledging and then not heeding the work direction to vacate a burning office is not only unwise and unsafe, amounting to a critical act of insubordination, but it is also a choice to die at work.  No, thanks.

But then there are work directions – and customer instructions – that don’t always produce the best product or outcome.  Acknowledging the original work direction; and then presenting your continuous improvement alternate solution, saving time and money; improving quality; or producing a new product (or all three), can make the difference between ignorance and success, in business and at work.



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