A Big Chunk Or A Small Chunk?

29 Jan 2016

A Big Chunk Or A Small Chunk?

Chunking up and down

Joe was referred to me after he’d resigned from his job in frustration. His company didn’t want to let him go and asked him to visit me, to see if we could resolve the issues which had lead to his decision. I discovered Joe had a chunking issue!


Joe (not his real name) complained that his boss gave him, “extremely vague” instructions that he struggled to understand. He was upset and discouraged, because it seemed she was dissatisfied with the work he produced. Joe didn’t know how he could resolve the situation, as he thought he was doing the best he could.

In desperation he’d resigned

He decided the best thing he could do would be to look for another job. When he showed me a report he’d completed for his boss I began to understand where the difficulties lay.

A chunking issue

Problems may arise between people because of the way each likes to take in and process information. The process of chunking refers your ability to move from specific, or small scale ideas and bits of information to more general or global ideas and information. Some like to take in big ‘chunks’ of information – to know the big picture or the overview. They have a more global perspective. Others prefer smaller chunks of information; they like to know the specific, sequential details and how things apply to them.

If you’re a global person you’ll talk about overall objectives

You probably won’t describe the specifics or how the goals are to be achieved. You may present things in random order using simple sentences, with few details. You often don’t bother specifying the link between your ideas, because in your own mind you can see the whole relationship.

Or maybe you’re a specific chunker?

If you like detailed information and specific instructions you’re a small chunker. You’ve probably got less awareness of the overview and you tend to concentrate on giving step-by-step accounts, describing details consecutively.

Giving instructions

If asked how to compile a report a specific person might say: ‘Well, first of all you need to get all the information together; so you’ll need to get the accounting information from the CFO, then you’ll have to talk to Production and make sure they’re going to have their figures ready on time. And, of course, you’ll need to make sure someone in HR knows to give you the absentee figures. Then you’ll need to put things in the right order. To get things in the right order, first you’ll have to…’

By this stage the global person will feel bored, annoyed, frustrated and/or overwhelmed by detail!

The global person, asked how to compile the same report might reply: ‘Well, you just to get the information together and then write it.’

For the specific person this is simply too vague and doesn’t give him enough information to understand what the global person is actually talking about.

I’m sure you understand specifically what the global problem is here!

A little digression might be useful at this point

I was brought up with the idea that you should treat others in the way that you want to be treated. For general purposes it may be a good way of thinking. However, it was this very belief that got me into trouble when I was managing my HR team.

My natural tendency is towards global thinking

I used to get extremely annoyed if anyone tried to give me the details of a project or tell me how it should be done. I would feel personally affronted and indignant, as if they perceived me to be incompetent!

I was thus very careful to ensure my team never got to feel that way. So I gave them fairly chunked up (OK then – vague!) information! I didn’t want to offend them by giving them the impression that I didn’t trust them to do their jobs.

The consequences were annoying

The problem was that my team hounded me for more information. Or they would try to guess what I wanted, and give me something that was completely wrong! Finally, after completing my NLP Practitioner Training I realised that they all preferred – and needed – chunked down, specific directions to feel comfortable and competent to complete a task. In hindsight, I should have realised this. Their positions were in payroll, health and safety, stores and cleaning. All roles where an eye for detail is essential!

I was completely mortified to think that I’d probably been driving them nuts by being so vague.

Apart from that learning, I now know that it’s more useful to treat people as they want to be treated – which may be totally different from how you want to be treated.

How does chunking affect organisations?

With many organisations flattening out their management structures and subsequently getting rid of middle management, I’ve seen these types of problems worsen. Part of a middle managers role was to ‘translate’ global information from senior management into specific instructions for those carrying out the tasks.

Nowadays senior managers often give global directives to those they lead and the followers complain about needing more specific and tangible instructions.

How to keep everyone happy

So what’s the answer to keep everyone happy? In simple terms it’s teaching individuals a way of chunking information, so they can deliver it in a way that’s appropriate for the listener. So if you’re a specific person, I’d teach you how to give a summary first and then provide details to backup the overview, if required. The overview is like a filing cabinet into which the details (the individual files) can be located.

If you’re a global person I would teach you to chunk down and provide sufficient detailed, sensory information. Information that relates specifically to the person who will be carrying out the task.

An example

If you are writing a report, you could start with an executive summary for the global people, and then give details for the specific people. Possibly the quickest and easiest way of conveying information in the most appropriate manner is to ask how much information a listener would like. In this way you can make sure they get what they want and you won’t offend them by giving too much or not enough detail.

Many people have a natural ability to chunk up and down

It is a skill worth developing. Not only will it allow you to gain rapport with more people, it also increases your thinking flexibility, because both global and specific thinking are essential in establishing and executing company or individual goals.

Back to Joe

Joe’s report was a mass of detail. It contained no overview. I read it several times and couldn’t make any sense of it. It just seemed to go from one detail to another with no overall goal. So I showed Joe ways to first write a global overview or an executive summary and then to link this to the details. I helped him ask specific questions of his boss. By so doing, he could get the information he needed to feel comfortable doing his work, as well as meeting his bosses requirements.

Then I talked to his boss – who really didn’t want to lose Joe – about how she could be more specific with the tasks she wanted him to complete. To invite and answer his questions so he had all the information he needed.

  • People have different ways of taking in information.
  • Global people like large chunks of information.
  • Specific people like small chunks.
  • There are a range of people in the middle who can do both.
  • Communication between global and specific people can cause frustration.
  • Learning how to do both is a very useful skill.
Want to learn more about chunking and ways to develop your own communication flexibility?