How to Succeed Even When You Have No Guidance

You may find yourself making nice steady progress at work when you have clear direction. Whether it comes from your direct supervisor or a mentor in a similar role, the right guidance can ease you along the learning curve to success.

But what if you’re in a position where you aren’t receiving the direction you need? Without the right person actively guiding you, can you still succeed in your role?

The short answer is yes. But it will take a bit more effort on your part.

First, be sure you’ve done your homework.

Let’s establish that it would be great if you were receiving the support provided by good direction from your supervisor or leadership. However, even when you’re not, there are still steps you can take to succeed in whatever role you currently have.

Perhaps your supervisor doesn’t explain things well, or is a bit impatient when it comes to answering questions. Even if they’re not providing the information you need, the onus is on you to come up with a solution. The fact that you’re not getting enough help from your manager doesn’t remove your obligation to do your job well.

Start by looking at the kinds of questions you ask. As your friends might inquire, “Did you Google it?” Where there are questions that you can answer on your own with a little research — via social media or elsewhere — go ahead and get those answers yourself.

This gives you a head start on getting the rest of the answers you need. If you can separate what you already know from what you need to know, you may get a better response from your supervisor.

“You can ask good questions and bad questions,” Willink said. And the difference between the two? A good question is one that you’ve already started answering with the sources you have available: “Check to make sure that you've put forth some effort in solving this problem. And then we can go forward. So I would say Google it, meaning, figure out what you can.”

Second, the more specific your request, the better.

Once you’ve figured out as much as you can, you’ll be able to narrow down what you need to ask the boss.

In a situation like this, the narrower, or more specific, your question can be, the better. If possible, boil things down to a yes or no, or true or false, question. Show your supervisor what you already know.

As an example, Willink offered, “There's two things that I really need some guidance on. Here's where I'm at. There's two things I really just need a little bit of guidance on. If you can help me, I have actually boiled it down to true or false or a multiple choice question.”

Make it easy for your manager. Multiple choice questions can work: “You know, do I do this, this, or this? Okay, do that. Okay, got it. Thank you,” suggested Willink.

“But when I go and ask my boss questions, I'm not going in there saying, ‘How do I do this?’” Willink emphasized. “I'm not gonna say, 'How do I do this?' I'm gonna say, ‘Hey, when I get to this point, and I end up with this situation, how do I get that done?’ And they’re more likely to tell me what I need to know.”


Make things easy for your boss: After you’ve figured out as much as you can, keep coming back with more specific questions, so they're easy for them to answer. This also shows that you’re committed to learning and that you’re putting forth a good effort.

Be as clear as possible, ideally asking a yes/no or multiple choice question. The more focused your request, the more likely you are to receive an answer you can use.

If you find that these strategies aren’t working, ask to have a conversation with your boss — offline, not when you’re both facing tight deadlines — to explore how you can best get your questions answered and the guidance you need. You both have the same goal: to see you succeed in your work.

Plus, a bonus question: Is there a large age difference between you and your supervisor? If so, think about how differently you may organize information: Someone in their 50s or 60s may tend to think vertically — on multiple levels, like a hierarchy, or to put topics into separate folders, like a file cabinet. Someone in their 20s or 30s may tend to think more horizontally — having grown up with the ability to keyword search across many surfaces at the same time. To receive better answers, it can help to make sure you’re speaking the same language.