You need to stop telling people what to do

By DJ Kelly September 24, 2012

Telling people what to do versus creating an environment that’s easy for them to figure out what they should do is probably the greatest leadership struggle I’ve encountered. I myself struggle with this nearly every single day and I’ve seen many, many others do the same.

The benefits of the latter far outweigh the former. It’s been proven time and time again that employees (or co-workers) who know the bigger picture – the vision and ultimate goal of the organization – are far better at acting to achieve that and proposing new ways to do it. Those who simply act on the instructions of an authority of some kind tend to only execute against what is asked of them, never striving beyond the limits of precisely what’s been requested.

Yet time and again I find myself trying to articulate what I want my team or co-workers or family to do. I know it’s not the best but it’s hard – we want the instantaneous result and giving direction, or setting a hard and fast rule, usually appears to be the shortest route between two points. Often I think we do this because we think of ourselves as the smartest person in the room. Often, but not always, we are. Until you realize that by giving round after round of detailed instructions, month after month or year after year, you’ve weeded out any additional intelligence the team might have brought to the table prior. Now you actually are the only smart person in the room. How is that better?! How are we more able to tackle the challenges that lay before us with only one smart person on the team?!

I may struggle with this mightily myself, but I am able to stick my head up every once in a while to see that the path doesn’t make sense. (Hence this post.) I can see that I should cringe when after seeing a company lament the lack of innovation and ‘thinking outside the box’ problem solving skills in their employees when their first day orientation introduces employees to the company’s code of conduct and spends the majority of its time instructing them primarily on how to comply. Is it any surprise they are not innovating and instead complying? That’s what you’ve taught them to do from day one!

So why don’t we – why don’t I – course correct? Yes, it’s hard, but it requires purposeful resoluteness. It requires discipline in ourselves. This is a massive issue. Especially when the mountain of work appears to be never ending. I/we end up taking the short term view and instead bark orders so we can move on to other matters as quickly as possible. (If I give you rule book and tell you to follow the rules that’s much faster than me saying “follow me around for a couple of months and watch how I’d like you to tackle issues”.) Plus let’s be honest, discipline, resoluteness and purposefulness aren’t exactly qualities we find laying around in spades. They are hard to develop and even harder to maintain.

The other part of this is it also requires trust in employees to do the right thing and trust in ourselves to show them the right thing without telling them the right thing.

I think one of the best ways to achieve this is for us to just flat out stop telling people WHAT to do and instead focus on HOW to do it and WHY to do it. After all, as I said above: An employee who understands WHY they are there is much better positioned to succeed than one who only understands WHAT they are there to do.

Around the office we’ve started calling this “focusing ON our work rather than focusing IN our work”.

  • Karl Yeh

    Read “Radical Managment” by Steven denning. Major focus on what you wrote about. Decline in Fortune 500 companies due to traditional mangagement. Sales force, amazon and apple are examples of radical management vs. GE, Cisco and Walmart as examples of traditional management.

    For me my only objectives in management are to delight the client/customer and ensure I remove all impediments preventing my team to achieve success. Whether that be business goals, objectives, career goals.

  • Robert Vautour

    I guess God is trying to
    Tell you what to do? Frailty
    Tells you better? Get the job
    Done? Don’t be alone.