Perhaps the most fundamentally critical aspect of anyone being able to produce their best work is truly understanding what it is your supervisor wants from you.

While this seems like it should be easy there are a variety of ways this can become fuzzy or unclear.

Perhaps you have different communication styles, perhaps they don’t understand what all you might have on your plate, or perhaps they simply have not ever stated it. Many times, a team member might be afraid to ask for clarity for fear of looking dumb to their supervisor.

It can feel intimidating to ask questions like these but, when handled correctly, it can communicate you are a highly focused employee to your supervisor rather than making you look uninformed. Although it can be a bit scary the advantages outweigh the disadvantages in making sure you have alignment in this area.

Here are a few ways you might approach your supervisor on the subject. 

  1. Ask “What’s most important now?” This is a great question to get information. Sometimes the answers might surprise you. It might be that you had a former supervisor who valued different things, it might be the workers around you are focused on less important tasks, or it might be that no one has ever asked. Everyone values being asked their opinion. Being able to ask what it is they value and what they think is important gives you a bullseye for knowing what work truly is the priority work in the eyes of your supervisor.  
  2. Ask “Would you prioritize these tasks for me?” One might be surprised at what they learn here. Take several of the important tasks you are doing and ask your supervisor to put them in order or priority. It doesn’t mean you are saying you will ignore the bottom ones but gives you insight into what the supervisor values. There is a likelihood that what a supervisor values are tasks that, when done properly, make their job easier. When you know what these are, and can deliver upon them, you are making yourself very valuable to the team.  
  3. Ask: “If you were in my shoes what would you be focusing on?” This can be a very insightful one because not only do you get information on how to prioritize your work you can also likely get info on how to potentially move forward in your work. How the supervisor prioritized the tasks is likely going to correlate with tasks that, if done well, can lead to other roles. It’s likely that when a supervisor asks this their answer is deeply based on the perspectives that grew them from a prior role to the current one. What they communicate they value through a backward glance at their career can really let you know what to focus upon now
  4. Bonus: Ask “If I say yes to this what can I take off my plate?” It’s not unusual to have a full workload and then be asked to do something else. It’s at this point you have to examine the question of “Is this something I can get done well AND the rest of my work?” or “If I invest time to do this new task either my other work or this new task will not get my best.” It’s a completely fair question to put back to your supervisor. You can share you really want to give your best on this but saying yes to this means something must go on the back burner. Reasonable supervisors who give you a task will want your best work on it and should be willing to help you rearrange a few other things to do so. 

As mentioned above, it can be intimidating or even seem risky to have such a conversation. Taking the time to do so and getting the clarity you need will only increase your chances of really delivering strong results in your work and serve to increase your value to the supervisor and your team.