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Goal-Oriented Communication

Goal-oriented communication is saying the "what" and letting someone else figure out the "how." This style defines a leader, rather than a manager.

Fred Perrotta
Fred Perrotta
3 min read

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In retrospect, I was a bad direct report at Google. Not a bad employee, a bad direct report. I was valuable to the company but a pain to my managers.

I wanted to be left alone to do my job, hit my bonus targets, and go home early. I didn't respond well to more "hands on" management.

Now, I'm on the other side of the manager/report relationship. I've reflected on what didn't work for me at Google and tried to learn as much as possible about managing people so that I don't screw up Tortuga.

Giving up control and trusting other people did not come naturally to me. Yet, I didn't want to be the type of manager that I disliked.

While I couldn't have stated it clearly then, what I wanted from my managers at Google was autonomy.

"Autonomy is the antithesis of micromanagement."
Source: Why Autonomy Is Important for Peak Performance

More autonomy makes people more satisfied with their jobs. Learning that fact is easy enough. Giving people that autonomy while still aligning everyone's work and moving the company forward is the hard part.

This lesson may be the most important one for managers, especially first-timers like me, to learn.

[Y]our job is now managing people, not tasks. You must work through others to get the job done. [S]top telling your staff how to do their job and, instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow them to determine how to accomplish the job.

I've recently found myself giving similar feedback to the Tortuga team to coach them to communicate better with each other and to work better with outside vendors.

This advice is usually geared towards managers, but everyone can benefit from goal-oriented communication. (Side note: Is there an existing name for this? I haven't found anything clear in the research.)

Goal-oriented communication is conveying the what and letting someone else figure out the how. This communication style defines a leader, rather than a manager.

Design briefs, often written for outside consultants, do this well. A brief must communicate the requirements of the project without being too prescriptive of the solution.

A good brief leaves room for experimentation and learning. A bad brief lists every detail of the solution and leaves the designer to do what they're told.

What does goal-oriented communication look like?

What: The problem to solve or goal to accomplish.

Why: The reason for doing so.

Don't omit the why. If the person can't explain why they're doing what they're doing and how it contributes to the company's goals, you may not get the result that you desire.

Constraints: The constraints around the project. A few constraints are good and can help to spark creativity. Too many constraints are bad and can force an employee into a predetermined solution.

What's missing from the above? The how.

Leave out the how.

That's for your teammate to figure out. If you clearly communicate the what, why, and constraints, the how won't matter much. The goal will be accomplished and the person who accomplishes it will experience autonomy in their work and a sense of accomplishment in meeting a goal with a clear reasoning behind it. Whether or not they do it "how you would have done it" doesn't matter. It got done.

You undoubtedly have developed a lot of subject and technical expertise, as well as your own style of getting the job done. Now you’ve got a team (made up of unique individuals) whose members have their own personal working style—which may not mesh with how you’ve always successfully done your work. That, however, doesn’t mean that their way is wrong.

Whether dealing with a direct report, a teammate, or an outside contractor, goal-oriented communication can help you to accomplish your goals while leveraging everyone's unique abilities. When you tell someone the solution and every step along the way, you remove the opportunity for them to make a contribution, to feel autonomy, and to apply their creativity. Your desire for control may yield the outcome you've decided in advance, but it won't be the best outcome and no one will be happy about how they got there.