What to do when people just want you to tell them what to do!

What to do when people just want you to tell them what to do!

I am unashamedly passionate about the need for leaders to become master communicators; to learn to have powerful conversations that – one conversation at a time – stimulate quality thinking, hold people accountable to useful effort, create insight and behaviour change, and focus people on ‘useful activity’ rather than ‘interesting distraction’.


Taking a coaching approach to conversations is a powerful skill, but what do you do when the people you are trying to support just want you to tell them what to do?  They don’t want to be asked the hard questions and they actively avoid, and even resent, having to take responsibility and make tough decisions.


Interestingly, the human brain does not like to be told what to do, so why do we find so many employees wanting the quick answer from the boss?


Firstly, consider that essentially, your brain is lazy – and for good reason.  You (and all of us) exist in a socially sophisticated world with a primitive brain and that causes problems. One of the brain’s KPI’s is its capacity to conserve energy and so quality thinking, particularly if not well supported or collaborative in nature, can be effortful.


Secondly, your brain is designed to automate behaviour. Any thinking or behaviour, useful or not, that is repeated is deliberately directed to your ‘automatic brain’ and turned into a habit.  If you are in the ‘habit’ of providing the quick answers to the questions that your people fire at you all day long, and making their decisions for them, then combined with the brains desire to conserve energy, you potentially have team members that will come to expect this and will avoid going outside of their mental comfort zones.  Habits are light on energy, so when you challenge someone to start thinking more deeply for themselves when this is not the norm for them, you are asking their brain to use more energy, which the brain will naturally resist.


The implications of being a boss that ‘tells’ and ‘solves’ are three fold:


  1. People get lazy and expect that the boss will do the heavy mental lifting, and this results in day-long interruptions to your focus and a drain on your mental energy.
  2. The boss (you) ends up doing everybody’s job for them, and that leaves insufficient time (and brain fuel) to do the heavy mental lifting for your own job (ie, ‘I don’t have time for the strategic thinking I should be doing!).  You end up with everybody’s monkey on your back.
  3. And then when it all turns to pooh, whose fault is it – the boss (you again). ‘John told me to do that!’


So back to the issue of the brain not wanting to be told what to do.  Essentially, being told is non-consciously processed as ‘you think I’m dumb’.  Often the asking is more of a checking that their thinking is correct. You would have experienced yourself the situation where you asked someone for advice and their well-intentioned response is peppered with ideas and thinking that you already knew or have tried – and we quickly tune out when that happens.


Leaders must strike a balance between supporting the thinking of others …and providing both technical and relational advice that is useful.


Here is an idea on how you might subtly begin to shift the balance of mental energy consumption, get some monkeys off your back, and motivate your people to engage in some great thinking and self-accountability.


In my brain-based coaching skills program – Conversations of Substance – we investigate what I call Accountability Questions. They look something like this:


So what DO you know about this?

What thinking or research have you already done OR what have you already tried?

What do you THINK you need to do?

What specifically is the missing information or decision you need from me?


It is reasonable to insist that, even in situations where there is a knowledge or technical gap, that a discussion around what people already know and have already tried or researched is key to finding the ‘actual gap’ in knowledge.  You will often discover that they already know the answer, but may not have been confident enough to make a decision or to articulate their view – and this should lead to another conversation about why they didn’t feel they could do that.


Asking a few qualifying questions can save everybody a lot of time. Challenge yourself to get into the habit of asking these types of questions before launching into solution mode and you will find you will lighten your own mental load and support others to do better thinking and to learn and grow.


Be careful what you (don’t) ask for…

Be careful what you (don’t) ask for…

One of my regular exercise spots in Brisbane is high on a hill, overlooking the city, and features an enormous water reservoir.  One lap around is 800 metres, and many families walk there with their children on bikes, and their dogs happily exploring. I love going there.


On Monday, I heard a child ask his mother if people were ‘allowed’ to take the bikes down an off road attached to the main road surrounding the reservoir.  The mother hesitated and then replied, in a supportive and apologetic tone… ‘I don’t think so, mate!’  The disappointed child turned around and continued to cycle on the main road.


My first thought was ‘what road?’ In all the years I’ve been running there, I hadn’t really noticed it – I had stayed focused on my task at hand and not considered any alternative routes.  it took the fresh eyes of a child to bring an unfiltered perspective.


My second thought was…wow, that was an unintentional curbing of that child’s curiosity… along with the assumptions that the parent made allowing for the maintenance of her comfort zone. I’m sure I’ve done this with my kids too.


Perhaps the mother could have asked a couple of questions like…


‘Is there a sign that says you can or can’t?’

‘Do you think it looks safe to go down there?’

‘How steep is the road, and do you think you could handle that slope?’


Or she could have acknowledged the value of the child’s observation.  Something like…


‘Oh, I’ve never noticed that road before!  Good on you for seeing it.  Let’s walk down there together to check it out and then we can decide if it’s safe.’


Leaders can fall into a similar trap.  They have been doing things one way for so long, (and it’s worked for them so why change) that they can fail to notice and appreciate alternative points of view or ways of achieving a specific outcome. This is normal, protective, human behaviour.  The human brain likes to conserve energy and will resist changing an activity or thinking pattern that has been ‘hardwired’ through repetition and past reward.


So, when others get curious and ask for ‘permission’ to explore or experiment, it can be too easy for the leader to simply redirect back to what the leader knows will be safe.


Is your organisation filled with assumed rules and boundaries that perhaps curb curiosity and creativity.  Do your leaders play it safe, and in the process fuel mediocrity and inhibit innovation? Beside depriving the child of the excitement of exploring the unknown, who knows what he might have discovered – perhaps a whole new bike-riding area?  It’s the same for leaders who are pressed to deliver and therefore choose to play it safe.


To shift this, leaders must develop a different mindset, a new set of conversational habits, and a level of self-leadership that embraces natural curiosity, humility and vulnerability, and create an environment where people have open permission to think, to be curious, to challenge the status quo and to bring new perspectives to old challenges.


Three of the most powerful words in any leader’s vocabulary should be – ’what if we…’ and all people in the organisation should be encouraged to use them.  An experimental mindset is critical if organisations are to thrive in this VUCA* world.  Imagine if scientists only ran experiments where the outcome was guaranteed? Discovery, innovation and learning would be sadly missing.


Here are three simple things you can do that will make a big difference…


  1. Any time someone asks you ‘Can I … ‘ or ‘Should I …’ you should respond with ‘what do you think?’
  2. Notice when the answers are coming too quickly from you. That could mean that others are relying on your expertise to much to solve their problems. Even as a leader you don’t need to be doing everybody’s thinking for them. Encourage others to think for themselves a bit more and build their own expertise.
  3. Ask more questions, and then shut up and let people think. The average elapsed time between when we ask a question, then answer it is 7 seconds.

These small changes will help you to get some of the monkeys off your back, encourage a higher quality of thinking, and shift accountability…leaving more time and brain space for you.




*VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous