Why you need to stop telling them what to do


You know that it’s easier and faster to just tell your employees what to do rather than have a long conversation or to “train” them. When you need something done, you tell them what you need, and they’re off, doing exactly what you want, the way you want it done. Quick and simple!

Yet you feel frustrated. Every time a new project comes along or something new needs to get done, there they are, calling, sending email, knocking on your door to get your directions.

You recently got this nice promotion, a “senior executive” in charge of a large and complex organization. You’re still in the weeks, yet expected to create a vision and a strategy. Yet you’re still working with tactics. You can’t seem to lift your thoughts out of the details of day to day work to see the bigger picture.

You might fail if you don’t figure this out and think broader.

There are some very good reasons why you need to get out of the minutiae of daily work.

It will set you free: You’ll free up your time and brain-space; you’ll actually be able to think, not just react. All of those interruptions and the discussions about minutia have trained your brain to stay in the weeds of daily work (by the way, the brain is particularly well suited to continuing to do things the way it has done them before. This conserves mind-energy for other things). When you stop wading in the weeds, your brain can fill the void with a grand vision for your organization.

It will set them free: You’ve come to believe that those who report to you are (choose one): inept, not capable, less-than-bright, or down-right stupid. You ought to fire the whole lot. Well, you’re probably wrong. If you could shift your thinking just a little bit, you might find that they are completely whole, capable, smart, competent human beings who know what needs to done. You’ve somehow managed to convince them that you are the only one who has all the knowledge needed for them to complete their work. Using a different way to communicate, you’ll help them to think for themselves. They’ll learn, become creative, and stop being dependent on you. They’ll be free.

So be a guide instead. Think of yourself in that way when they come to get your answers. Ask them what they think they need to do and how they’ll do it. Listen to what they have to say. Let go of your need to have things done just so. Encourage them, thank them, let them know how much you count on them to do the job right (but their way, not yours).

You’ll be surprised at how smart and capable they are. Happy broad-picture thinking!

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

5 comments on “Why you need to stop telling them what to do

  1. Nice article. It implies only one level of organization/supervision. Try assigning review responsibility to senior/skilled employees and task them to assign tasks down the chain. Review final product with both.

  2. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are three things most employee’s desire from their jobs. If pay and benefits are acceptable and the environment to achieve the big three listed above is present, you will generally have a happy, content, and productive group of people achieving your agencies goals and solving problems. No one likes to be told what to do especially when they know what needs to be done and how to do it.
    Providing the destination and not the exact route, in my experience, as well as allowing the employee to succeed or fail on different legs of the journey, has created more successful and dynamic results. While I will concede that there are certainly times when direct non-negotiable supervision is required from time to time; I know that avoiding that path in normal day to day operations will most always get a positive result. The caveat is that you have to be a facilitator.
    If you work smart on front end of, you will achieve the goals and objectives at the end of the day and will have arrived there with a whole lot less stress and aggravation. On the front end you insure that your people have what they need. Training, understanding and resources to complete the task. I have never met a person who had all the answers, so take input and suggestions. Allow them to find their way to the goal. If you think of baseball when you think about getting a task done it might help. There are two foul lines in baseball on the way to knocking it out of the park; left and right. If you think of those foul lines as your policy on one side and the law on the other, does it really matter how it goes over the fence when you hit a home run?
    I have no expectations that everyone will agree with me however, I know that I have excelled when given the opportunity to work in the big three environment and have achieved as a leader when I have created the environment. So kudos to setting yourself free at the same time setting them free. If you have never gone home at the end of a day and been able to say; “I didn’t have to tell anyone to do anything today. ” you should try it.

  3. Captain Harrell, Thank you for adding your experience to this post. It has definitely been my own as well. I especially like the statement, “I didn’t have to tell anyone to do anything today”, but as many leaders are beginning to learn the importance of allowing their employees some freedom, I would make it a question, or a series of questions:

    “Did I tell anyone to do anything today?”
    “What were the circumstances or reasons in doing so?”
    and “Would I do anything differently the next time?”

    Thanks again, very good food for thought.

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