Martians and Managers: An Exercise in Clear Communication

I find that I often get myself into frustrating situations due to a lack of clear communication. I’ll have half-baked ideas in my head that I haven’t clearly articulated to a teammate. It’s as if I’m expecting them to read my mind or complete my thought process and make this “idea” into a real and tangible process or project.

Undoubtedly when this doesn’t happen I become frustrated, annoyed, and disappointed, and those emotions are often directed at my teammates when they should be directed squarely back at me.

I was doing some research on this topic and came across numerous polls and surveys that said that employees want the right tools for the job and clearly communicated expectations to be more productive at work and to do their jobs better. Sounds obvious, right?  But when we really think about it, as a leader, it’s easy to brush off employees’ concerns about tools and expectations. The phrase “make it work” comes to mind.

A few years ago I learned a fun exercise to demonstrate the importance of communication skills, and I’ve been teaching it at workshops ever since. I call the exercise “Martians and Managers.” This is a fun group activity, and it’s good for the most senior and most junior employees at any organization. Everyone gives direction to someone. Everyone should be included in this exercise. 

To get started, divide your group into teams of at least three people. Supply each of those groups with one pre-sliced, packaged loaf of bread, one jar of peanut butter, one jar of jelly, one butter knife, one plate, and one napkin. Set up the supplies on a table with space for participants to gather around and follow these instructions:

  1. Within each team, ask for a volunteer for each of the following roles:
  • Manager – anyone in the group
  • Martian – someone who is more reactive/theatrical/dramatic
  • Customer – someone who is observant and critical
  1. Ask the Martians to step forward, and give them the following directions:

This is your first day on Earth, and you’ve just been hired to work at a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich restaurant. You are responsible for making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. You’ve never heard of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and you’ve never made one before. You understand English fluently. You will listen to your manager and do exactly as instructed. Follow every instruction literally (emphasis on literally). Your job will be to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, cut it diagonally and deliver it to the customer on a plate with a napkin.

  1. Ask the managers to step forward, and give them the following directions:

You’ve just found the perfect new employee, but your employee has never worked at a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich restaurant before and has never made a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Your job is to give crystal clear, step-by-step instructions so the Martian can make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, cut it diagonally, and deliver it to the customer on a plate with a napkin. The Martian will do exactly as you say, so think carefully and thoughtfully about your instructions. Remember the importance of clear communication.

  1. Ask the customers to step forward, and give them the following directions:

You’re famished and can’t wait to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Observe how the manager communicates with the Martian. After you receive your sandwich from the Martian, you’ll be asked to talk about your experience and the process in front of the entire group. You’ll be asked about what you’ve learned about the importance of clear communication.

  1. Instruct the teams to start, and give them about 10 minutes to complete the exercise. Upon completion of the exercise, ask the customers to come to the front of the room to share their team’s experience. Allow for group discussion.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how easy it is to gloss over simple step-by-step instructions and assume that our employees and teammates know what we want them to do. With this exercise, the worst thing that can happen is that bread goes flying, peanut butter and jelly end up all over the table, and a seemingly inedible sandwich lands in your lap. But when it comes to work and important projects, the consequences can be much more severe when we don’t clearly communicate with others. So, when I find myself slipping back into my bad communication habits, remembering the “Martians and Managers” exercise is one of the tools I use to get back on track.

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