Does Your Team Understand What You Say?

m_davidGuest post by David Dye.

Recently, I dropped off a friend at the airport. As I pulled away, a man in a traffic-control vest stood in between lanes of traffic, waving his hand.

His index and middle finger were extended as he made eye contact with me, waved his hand repeatedly up toward my car and then down, pointing at the adjacent lane. I nodded my agreement, slowed down, and eased into the next lane over. Then I waved back at the traffic-controller and continued on my way.

All of the sudden he slammed his hand down on my hood and yelled, “STOP!” I slammed on my brakes and he waved some pedestrians across the traffic lanes.

Looking at him, he was clearly upset that I had ignored his traffic signal. I wasn’t sure what had happened, as he’d never told me to stop, but I shook it off and got on with my life…

Until nine days later when I was in the middle of a construction zone – and it happened again. A man wearing an orange vest stood at the beginning of a blocked off lane and this time waved both hands, two fingers extended waving the cars in the center lane to merge into the lane on either side of him. Once again, I made eye contact, slowed down, slid over into the lane he indicated, and – he yelled at me to “Stop!”


Did I miss a memo?

At this point, I was very confused… and both of those men trying to direct traffic were very angry. They were angry because they felt ignored, because they were in danger, and other people were endangered too by uncaring motorists such as myself.

But the thing is… I experienced both these situations just as I’ve described them.

I was confident I understood what both men were telling me: “Get out of this lane and get in that lane…” and that’s exactly what I did. To both of those men, however, I was ignoring an obvious message: “Stop here.”

I’ve lived my entire life believing the universal sign for stop is an outstretched arm, fingers pointed at the sky, palm facing away from you. (Yes, picture the Supremes singing “Stop, in the name of love!”)

Now I’m wondering if they’ve changed the sign language for “stop” and I missed the memo?


Does your team understand?

How many times have you given your team what you thought were clear instructions, but they did something very different from what you intended? I know I’ve done it many, many (many!) times.

It’s so easy to believe you’ve been clear about your expectations, statement of a problem, or guidance about how to accomplish a task. Just like those men directing traffic, you thought you were clear, but people do something else entirely, and then you get upset, frustrated, and angry.

Ask your team of their understanding of your instructions. Click To Tweet

Have you ever wondered (hopefully to yourself): “How could they be so stupid?” If so, you’re not alone – this happens to many leaders.

Fortunately, you can solve this leadership frustration with a few simple practices:

Check for understanding

m_glassesAfter every interaction with an individual or a team, ask them to tell you their understanding of the expectations, the situation, the problem, or the desired steps. You will know instantly whether or not what you thought you said is what they took away. If not, try again.

Advanced version: when you’re walking around, see what people are doing and ask them to tell you about it. Ask them why they’re doing it. You’ve accomplished two things: you paid attention to individuals and valued their work and you discovered if people are clear about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Speak to be understood

This may seem simple, but that doesn’t mean everyone does it. Use clear language. Be direct. Don’t play games with your speaking, trying to look smart, confuse your listener, or obscure meaning.

Use clear language. Be direct. Click To Tweet

Some leaders are intentionally vague because they don’t want to say, “I don’t know” or, “I can’t really talk about that because of x, y or z reason”. Even when you can’t give a direct answer, you can be clear about your limitations.

m_sign language

Create a common language

In your team and organization, you can have conversations about specific concepts and agree upon their meaning. Imagine if there had been a big public service campaign for the last six months and billboards, television, and radio commercials all relayed the fact that people directing traffic intend you to stop when they do that two-fingered-pointy-wave.

I would have known to stop my car because we’d created a common vocabulary.

Do you know what you’re saying that might not be understood?

Try to explain it to someone outside your organization Click To Tweet

Here’s an easy way to test it:

Talk with someone else

Use a third party – a friend, a coach, or maybe a patient spouse. Try to talk with someone outside your organization. If they can’t understand what you’re saying (with a little context to help with industry-specific practices), you’ve got some work to do.

Use these same practices with your supervisor


Repeat back what you think is expected. Speak to be understood. Clarify what you don’t understand.

Remember, just because it makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense to everyone else. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure communication is clear all the way around.



  • What practices do you use to be understood?
  • How do you check whether you understand others?
  • Which of the above tips can you apply right away?

David M. Dye works with leaders, managers, and supervisors who want to get more done, build teams that care, and meet their goals. He is the President of Trailblaze, Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and his book, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say is available on His latest book is Winning Well.

Please help me spread positivity by tweeting, liking, and commenting!

Leave a Reply

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Alice Lirova

    Very Insightful, as leaders we always want “mini me’s” – direct reports who think and act like us, and when they do not we are angry,or puzzled at the very least.

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