The Telling Truth About Telling Others What to Do

Like most people, you would more likely do a task if you were encouraged rather than being told. Most of us rail against being told what to do as it not only demotivates us, but it likely takes us back to our childhoods when being told what to do with little reason was so annoying!

If you need to encourage someone to do a task and over-rely on directive instructions, you are more than likely not going to get the outcome you are aiming for.  

Without appropriate leadership skills support and development, first time leaders, in particular, can default to telling others what to do.  Constant pressure and reminders might get the short-term desired result, but the costs will outweigh the benefits of this approach over time. New and existing managers can become frustrated when their ability to influence others quickly wanes. 

Telling people what to do can sometimes be necessary in certain situations, such as when safety or urgent matters are involved. However, for several reasons, reliance on giving orders or telling people what to do can be problematic in most other contexts.

First, this results in a loss of autonomy. Constantly telling people what to do removes their autonomy and decision-making abilities. This can lead to disengagement and decreased motivation, as individuals may feel they have no control over their actions and outcomes.

When people are given explicit instructions without room for exploration and creativity, they miss opportunities to learn and develop problem-solving skills. Allowing individuals to figure things out on their own can foster growth and critical thinking.

Not allowing people to think for themselves can cause a dependency on authority. Looking for the answer from those more senior can hinder teamwork and collaboration, as people may become hesitant to take the initiative or share ideas.

Ineffective problem-solving is also a symptom – if people are only accustomed to following orders, they may struggle to adapt when faced with new or unexpected situations that require quick decision-making and problem-solving skills.

A lack of ownership and responsibility can result when individuals are not involved in the decision-making process; they may not feel a sense of ownership or responsibility for the outcomes, leading to potential disinterest or negligence.

Where innovation and creativity are critical parts of someone’s role, not providing space for independent thinking and decision-making can lead to a dearth of innovative solutions and creative ideas.

Then there are the negative emotional impacts. Constantly being told what to do without the opportunity for input can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, or a lack of fulfilment in one’s work or personal life.

Finally, being told what to do can lead to communication barriers and missteps. Giving orders without proper context or explanation can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations, as people may not fully grasp the reasons behind the instructions.

So, what is the alternative? Instead of telling people what to do, fostering a culture of collaboration, open communication, and shared decision-making can be more effective in the long run. Encouraging individuals to take ownership of their tasks, providing guidance when needed, and allowing space for creativity and innovation can lead to higher job satisfaction, better problem-solving, and a more productive and engaged team.

Simple, yes?  Whilst motivating others is never straightforward, some core skills can greatly assist managers in this area:

  • Delegation Skills:  A delegation framework and the training to use it can help managers move from less directive styles to more effective delegation and support styles. Managers need to know what to delegate, how to delegate, when, and how to support those they delegate to.
  • Leader as a coach:  Fundamental coaching skills can help managers bring their teams with them.  The best delegation can involve tasks that stretch employees.  Quality coaching and support can distinguish between feeling overstretched and embracing a new learning opportunity enthusiastically. 
  • Setting clear objectives:  It is hard for people to thrive if they don’t understand what they are being asked to do and what success looks like.  Most of us are aware of the SMART approach to specifying objectives, but too often we fail to actually use this simple framework effectively in our attempts to achieve things with and through others.  

At nXus People, we focus on the power of collaboration, teamwork and leadership. With very few exceptions, coaching, encouraging growth, empowerment, and continuous improvement will deliver better results than simply telling someone what to do.