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Communicating Intent

Patrick Nelson, July 6, 2015

Communicating Intent

As a young soldier deployed to Iraq in 2003, I was eager to show my managers I was motivated and ready for any tasks that came my way. However, that eagerness once led me to making a mistake that cost my team both time and money.

I was artillery by trade. My job entailed everything from the maintenance of the howitzer cannon to loading and firing it. One day, my section chief was looking for someone to volunteer to clean our howitzer cannon. My hand shot up even before he could finish his sentence as I wanted him to know that I was the soldier ready to do the work. The only problem was, I had never done this before. Sure, I had seen it done plenty of times, but never did it on my own. But, hey, how hard could it be? I just needed a very large Q-tip, right? From what I had observed, all I needed to do was connect some long poles together and put a big brush at the end and swab the inside of the cannon. But my assumptions were wrong.

I went out there and proceeded to clean it, my way. As I am sure you guessed, my way ended up breaking three pieces of equipment totaling thousands of dollars. I even broke a really expensive hammer in the process. This damage not only resulted in inoperable equipment, but also in downtime for our gun because we had to wait for parts to come in from the states to fix it. (I won’t even begin to talk about the embarrassment I endured once everyone learned about my rookie mistake.)

This happened because I, like many people who approach new tasks, was eager to show that I could do the job despite little to no training. But I did pull some pretty important takeaways from this experience:

  • When we underestimate the task (or overestimate our abilities), this decreases the potential for organizational success.
  • When we approach a new task we have to slow down and request training or best practices so we can speed up our learning.
  • There is no shame in asking for help. Our curiosity and willingness to learn shows others that we’re coachable.

Eventually, I would transition into more of a managerial role with my team who also had to mentor new learners. My advice to managers who are leading eager performers is that you have to slow your new employees down while continuously encouraging them to take on more responsibility. Take the time to patiently share with them how things work and operate. Work alongside them and let them know how vital their role is to the success of the team and the organization. And you should always clearly and consistently communicate your intent and expectations to all employees regardless of their experience.

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