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Help! My boss gives contradictory instructions!

I am a part-time waitress. I enjoy the job, I get to meet many nice people. I see them come in, have a good time, enjoy their meal, and leave with a smile. If I can add to their experience and give them even more reasons to smile – and come back again – I am happy. I get all that and a little extra cash on the side. But there is one thing that I cannot supervisor. So it’s been three weeks since I have worked there, and we were recently hauled into the office and she started lambasting us – there were three of us who were new to the restaurant – for not meeting our performance standards. Our main role is to clear the tables as soon as patrons leave their seats. There was a maximum turnaround time expected for each table, and we were not meeting that. In addition, we were supposed to refill the water glasses for patrons at table. Before we left she reminded us very ominously, “Never, ever, let me catch you handling the drinks and food. That is not your job!” Point taken.

So after the session, I am stationed just by the drinks point, looking out for any table to clear or any glasses to refill. Then I heard over the earpiece, “Drinks pickup.” Well, after being told “never, ever” to touch the food and drinks, I am certainly not going to go near it, despite that the drinks were just in front of me. “Drinks pickup” came the second time over the earpiece. I do nothing. “Drinks pickup!!” came the third time. Then my supervisor slid up to me and growled, “Are you deaf?” At that time, the server came and picked up the drinks. I was thinking to myself, “What the....Am I supposed to handle food and drink or not?”

This story was recounted to me by a friend and highlights the issues that many people face at work – contradictory instructions! How does one act when one receives instruction that contradicts operating procedure or earlier instruction? Does the last instruction override the former? How should exceptions be handled? What is the protocol to manage them and keep the communication open and clear? In this post, I share 5 crucial ideas in leadership communication that all supervisors should bear in mind when making exception instructions:

1. State that this is an exception

Changes happen a lot on the ground, and we might not be able to anticipate them all. Sometimes, for expedience in execution, we need to do things differently, and that is all right. However, when you want people to act in obvious contradiction, you need to tell them that this is an exception, and it will only be a one-time thing. This then puts the staff at ease, and carry out the instruction confidently.

2. Be responsible for the instruction

Let’s assume that when your staff carries out the exception, she was caught by another person higher in authority doing what she was not supposed to do; then YOU have to explain why the exception was called. You need to be responsible for the instruction. This then puts your staff at ease to performing the next exception, if it should ever come about again. What you must NEVER do is throw your staff under the bus, and let her accept all the blame for an instruction that you gave; never mind that the staff is working only part-time, or of a lower level. Integrity is the key to all leaders, and if you don’t own the instruction, you lose all credibility with your staff, and no one will go the extra mile for you anymore. You must be responsible for the instruction.

3. Plan for exceptions

If you find that the exceptions are becoming more the norm, plan for them. Create a proper exception handling plan so that it becomes clear to all your staff how to react to them when the time comes. In fact, you should also have a working plan for reacting to any unexpected event so that it does not become an exception. And if you want to reduce the number of exceptional situations, you might also want to create the environment to ensure that. For example, there is a very successful bistro chain in Singapore that have servers who are not empowered to take orders. Hence they wear a T-shirt that says, “I CAN’T take orders.” This pre-empts complaints about having people around, but no one taking their order.

4. Empower execution

No matter how many exceptions you can plan for, you will never be able to plan for all of them. You therefore need to trust your people on the ground to do the right thing. This means that you must train them well, understanding how they react to changes, and empower them to make the right decision. Ultimately, we need to realise that our staff can think too, and given the right support and empowerment, having their back should the proverbial excrement hit the ceiling, you can have a motivated team that is not afraid of handling exceptions, and giving an extra hand during the busy times. This improves your productivity and effectiveness. Now how’s that for leadership excellence?

5. Constantly improve

Lastly, seek to improve constantly. What normally happens to us is when the “crisis” is over, or the service is done, we forget about the exceptions in service and the lessons they bring with them, and then we fight to overcome them again, when they happen once more. There is a need to do an “After Action Review” to tally what exceptions happened, what we did, what we could do better, and what we should do in the future. Then put it in the operational procedure, so that we constantly improve, and through that, increase our effectiveness. Now isn’t this easier than saying, “Are you deaf?”

Embrace diversity

Leadership is not rocket science, and all it takes is for us to be aware of how people will react in different situations, and make sure that you support them in their journey. It means having empathy because sometimes what may be obvious to you is actually not very obvious. Accepting that others will have different experiences, different perspectives, different ideas, allows us to approach exceptions differently. We must use this diversity to our advantage, rather than stick to the norm because the norm might well be the poorer alternative. No organisation, no firm, no outfit has ever gotten better by having the same type of people working in it. A company I know is sliding into insignificance because it has successfully driven out all the diversity from it, leaving only “yes men” who will not offer any new ideas, new perspectives. This is the PERFECT recipe for failure.

Handling exceptions, therefore, is a perfect opportunity for your organisation to get better and grow. Integrity, empowerment, diversity, trust, responsibility are all crucial leadership skills that you must display to get your staff perfectly aligned. And that certainly does not mean giving contradictory instructions!


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