How To Stop Telling People What To Do

Telling people what to do feels like we’re in control. Plus, we’re being helpful. But it doesn’t often work. Let’s explore 4 reasons telling people what to do doesn’t get things done – and what to do instead. 

Your colleague is making little progress on a project. You know how to do it, so you try to help by telling him what he needs to do next. Things will now move forward at lightning speed because we’ve clearly instructed him, right? Not likely.

You know this! But it doesn’t stop you from telling people what to do. You are not alone.

Even though we know that telling people what to do doesn’t work, leaders steadfastly refuse to give up the practice and learn new ways of working with people.

Why We Tell People What To Do

Our assumption is the other person is missing key information. With that information they will be able to move forward. Since we know that information, we share it. It’s the nice thing to do!

If a lack of information were the only problem, then telling them what to do would make sense. However, information usually isn’t the main problem. Something else is.

Information Is Rarely The Main Problem

There is usually more going on behind the scenes that stops people from moving forward. It may look like the problem is only a lack of information, but it rarely is.

Here are 4 reasons telling people what to do doesn’t work, and what to do instead.

  1. People interpret your information differently. A manager was having trouble working with one of her teammates. I suggested she sit down and talk with him openly. She did, but instead of listening to the other person to understand his perspective, like how I imagined the conversation would go, the manager listed off her grievances with the teammate, which made things worse. Instead, I could have asked the manager, “What next steps do you see in working with him?” and then, “Let’s role play that conversation together.”
  2. People don’t have the skills to put your information into practice. This is my experience every time I go to Home Depot and ask one of the salespeople how to fix, install, or change something. I understand the instructions, I just don’t have the skills or the tools to implement it. Instead of launching in and telling me how to do it, the salesperson could ask, “What help do you need?” I would say I need someone to do it for me. Or if you do share information, ask, “What’s your confidence level that you could do this?”
  3. People don’t believe what you believe. I worked with a group on how to develop the leadership of the people they work with. This group engaged in the coaching exercises I introduced, but I could tell they were not going to put them into practice back home. Through asking questions I uncovered that they don’t believe developing other people’s leadership is necessary, when they can more easily do the tasks themselves. This belief kept them from using the information I provided. Instead, I could have spent more time at the beginning asking about challenging people-related situations, how they see their role in training and developing others, and their experience working with others.
  4. People are motivated differently. I’m motivated by the big picture, the vision for what we’re doing. Thankfully, I work with several people who are motivated by little details. Dotting all the “i”s and crossing all the “t”s motivates them, but not me. Think Love Languages, except in the context of motivation. We do what we’re motivated to do, not just what we know how to do. A person is usually motivated by what they are passionate about and that which uses their strengths. Take some time to know these things about the other person and look for ways to match their natural motivations to the task at hand.

If people were machines, then we could just tell them what to do, and they’d do it. Machines are limited. People are much more capable, creative, and intelligent. When we’re trying to get people to follow our directions, we see their intelligence as a problem. One of my old bosses used to say, “I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to do what I tell you to do.”

Software makers are trying to create Artificial Intelligence, we already have Intelligence in the people we work with. We need to tap into people’s intelligence and stop treating them like machines.

When you think of people as capable, creative, and intelligent, you’ll get curious about why they might be stuck. Then, you’ll see more options than simply “they don’t know, so I’ll tell them.”

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    6 thoughts on “How To Stop Telling People What To Do

      • Yes we are! That’s why we need to uncover the reasons for resistance so they can be addressed, rather than just telling them what to do again and facing more resistance.

    1. Thank you for posting this! It is really helpful for me. Just discovered I am always telling people what to do and how to do it. Never saw that in me. Just thought I was being helpful. Lol thanks

    2. Thank you Dr. Keith! I agree with what you are saying and I bet everyone if they were to read this would shift their thinking and open their minds up a little more.

      I’ve learned to ‘let go’ of past learning and re-learn or remember what we are naturally capable of thinking, feeling and doing.

      I appreciate your writing and sharing! 😊

    3. An acquaintance of mine at the dog park is telling strangers to “slow down” because they caused a dust cloud driving into the park. It seems rude to me and a pointless effort. It will always be dusty at the park, whether it’s cars or dogs running around. Why does she continue this behaviour. People don’t like it and the entire group of us get a bad rap.