Don’t tell your people what to do

Ask them what should be done.

This is one of the most powerful ways that you have as a manager to get your Directs to start thinking for themselves and not just blindly following orders.  Think about it in your own work life.  If you go to your boss with a question about what to do next and she tells you exactly what to do, what have you learned?  You learned what your boss wants in that exact circumstance.  The next circumstance will be different.  They always are.  So what do you do next time?  You ask your boss what to do.

There’s a better way.

If you go to your boss with a questions about what to do next and she asks you what you think should be done, that will start a dialog.  You may recommend X action and you boss then has the opportunity to explain why that is a good or bad option.  It forces your to come up with more than one option as well. Critically thinking about the problem in this way leads to more and better options.  If you have more options, you are more likely to choose the best one.

This happened to me one time with a boss that I’ll call Fred.  I was working in a grocery store and one of the big stacks of merchandise at the end of the grocery isles (endcap) was running low on product.  I had been trained previously that having an endcap that looked less than full was never desired.  It made the store look junky.  So I went to Fred and asked him what to do about it.

He asked me what I thought we should do.

My first thought was that he should just tell me what to do so that I wouldn’t have to think any more about it (I was about 18 at the time).  But Fred was the type of boss that was always looking for ways to get more out of his people and this was a prime opportunity for him to push me a little bit.  I suggested that we could bring out more product to fill the stack back up.  This sounded like a good idea to me but it wasn’t.  Fred just smiled and reminded me that a new sales ad came out the next day and the pork & beans would no linger be such a great deal–Spaghetti O’s would be in demand.

Explain the “why” when giving instructions.

He wanted to let the pork & beans sell down for the rest of the day so there would be less to pull when the sale ended that night.  Another guy was scheduled for early the next morning to build a big display of Spaghetti O’s.

If I had asked Fred what to do and he had responded with “Just let the product sell down.  Don’t re-stock.”  And that was all I got from him, I wouldn’t have learned anything and I would be right back in front of Fred the next time a display was running low.  How effective would that have been for Fred?

He would be interrupted every time and I wouldn’t have been as productive as I otherwise could be.  With the discussion and explanation that we had, I had a framework for the next time I noticed that a display was running low on product.   It’s that same with your Directs.

Give them a framework for future decision making.

This interaction with Fred led to me thinking about why a display may be running low, what the day of the week it is, how that affects the stocking of merchandise, and the different products that we carried.  This was one of dozens of discussions that I had with Fred that eventually led to me experiencing management of other people for the first time when I was promoted to closing manager.

Leading your team in this manner is a great way to get them promoted.

And having your directs promoted shows that you are a good leader and will lead to more and better work assignment and promotions for you as well.  Tell me about a time that your boss didn’t give you the answer and made you think critically instead.

-Tim Bartholomew