Why Management Isn’t Telling People What To Do – The Power of Asking

In short: Ask people how to do things. Don’t tell them what to do. Have an idea in mind how you want things done. If they don’t give you the answer you expect, ask around their answer. It could be you didn’t give them enough information to come to the same conclusion, or their answer is better than the solution you came up with.

In retrospect, for years I was awful as a project manager.

I thought my job was to tell people what to do. I thought I was to give instructions, and have people carry them out, the way I told them to do it. I can see how this was terribly frustrating for everyone. People who were highly trained, intelligent and experienced were being bossed around by a guy who had a Gantt chart and not much else. If you were one of those people I managed then, and come across this, I hope you accept my apology.

What finally happened? I don’t really remember. I think I realized one day that these people I was working with knew a lot more than I did. And I saw that they did great things, if I got out of their way, but provided enough structure for them to work with.

But, it lead me to one of my guiding PM rules: I should never tell anyone what to do. Telling people what to do takes away their ownership, prevents them from thinking through the problem, and coming up with more elegant solutions than I could come up with.

Instead, what I should do is set up parameters: what is the background of the situation, who are the players and what is the end desired outcome for what I need them to do and for the project. Then ask them: how should we do this?

Do I have an idea of what the answer should be: of course! I’ve been doing this for awhile. I’ve got my talents. And this is not my first time at the rodeo. And there are some things that you just do certain ways that we do not need to reinvent. But it still means I should give the experts who I work with the opportunity to answer the questions.

If we come to the same conclusion, then great. If not, that is where we have a discussion. Sometimes the difference of opinion comes from not having a whole backstory. (“Oh, you didn’t tell me that.”) Sometimes you are the one who learns something. Either way, you come out with a smart, consolidated answer.

Best of all you have a team that becomes self-managing. If they have backstory, if they need to make decisions and you aren’t around, they have enough information to react in an informed way. They also see potential disasters before they occur.

It also let’s people be inspired, to use their problem solving abilities, and to be happier at their job.

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