For the past five years I've been leading a four- session training course aimed at helping newly appointed leaders in a government agency develop effective leadership skills. I cover communication styles, giving and receiving feedback, time-management and people management.
During one recent session, participants mentioned how often their direct reports come to them in crises wanting to be told what to do. Now this is a city agency that is completely overworked and understaffed. Not to mention, the decisions made are sometimes a matter of life and death. So when direct reports came to the new leaders for help, they usually told them what to do and in some cases did it for them. Even though doing so was frustrating and distracting, the new leaders felt that “helping” their direct reports saved time and avoided trouble. But does it really? Or does it create dependent workers who don't learn to think for themselves and don't learn to trust their own decisions?
I suggested that if they really wanted to raise a solid, capable team, (and avoid their own burn-out) perhaps they needed to spend a little extra time coaching their direct reports by asking them what THEY think should be done.
The next week one of the participants, I'll call her Susan, reported a huge success. One of her direct reports came to her in a panic. Susan said“She had a very stressful case and I know that whenever she’s under a lot of stress she comes to me to give her the answers. But this time I thought about what you said last week and I asked her how she thinks she should handle things? It really helped her to calm down. I made her realize that she did have the answers. I couldn’t believe it worked!” And when I asked Susan if it took up a lot of time, she said "No!" And think of the ROI of that time. The time you invest instilling confidence in your direct report will yield amazing returns - a more confident, self-reliant staff is more efficient, effective and engaged.
(Before you start typing your comments about how sometimes you HAVE to tell them what to do - Stop. I know that there are definitely going to be times where you need to have the answers and I’m not suggesting you withhold important information from them if they don’t know it.)
BUT next time someone comes to you wanting to be told what to do, try using these - Ask Don’t Tell Leadership questions first.
Telling your staff or direct reports what to do, is not really leading, it’s dictating. When teams and organizations feel dictated to, they can develop two mindsets: The Sheep Mindset or the Rebel Mindset – neither of which makes for a thriving, productive or enjoyable workplace.
- “I understand this is a stressful situation and needs immediate action, how do YOU think we should handle it?”
- “It sounds like you’re overwhelmed. I get it. There’s a lot going on. What do you see next steps being?”
- And in the event you get the answer “I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking you!” You could try the very annoying Neural linguistic programming question –o “What would you say if you did know?” (It’s such a confusing question that it often shakes people out of their stupor)o OR you can say something like, “I’ve seen you handle similarly complicated situations before like when you (give a specific example) I believe you have some idea of next steps.”
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” General S. Patton
Here’s to developing a great workforce. If you need help, take a look at my Capability Statement and contact me for information on training sessions.