True or False? Management should have all the answers.

June 21, 2016

Thomas F. Hilton, PhD

Some managers think that they should have all the answers. This may be because they think that their subordinates will disrespect them if they are not perceived to be technically competent.

You could call this style "leading by telling."

Perhaps such managers think that telling people how to do their jobs demonstrates technical expertise--without realizing that being "told how" can also signal disrespect for someone else's technical competence.

Leading by telling risks creating a disempowering work climate, one that can lead lead to "satisficing": doing exactly what one is told, sufficient to satisfy the boss. No more, no less.

Leading by asking

In the field of addiction treatment, it's not uncommon for managers to be promoted from within the counselor ranks, where technical competence imparts respect from peers. However, in the role of manager, technical competence is only useful when it can help the staff to plan carefully, identify necessary resources, and anticipate barriers to success.

The best way to do that is to ask good questions--to lead by asking.

Most of us, when we start out in our new role as the boss, will likely misjudge when it's appropriate to lead by telling people how to do their jobs rather than by asking people what problems they face and how you can help. When I was a fledgling Navy officer, peer respect was earned by technical mastery. Most of my fellow junior officers overlooked that we were not leading our peers. We were leading a crew of people technically well-trained and experienced to do their jobs.

What my crew needed from me was help in prioritizing tasks, clarifying mission requirements, and identifying needed resources. Supervision was not about badgering crew members with deadlines, but using deadline slippages to spotlight the need to help a workgroup troubleshoot barriers to meeting those deadlines. 
Asking empowers. Telling does the opposite.

Later in my Navy career, I had the great fortune to work on the staff of the late Admiral Mike Boorda, Chief of Naval Operations. At board meetings with his subordinate admirals, the Admiral never told them what to do or how to do it. Admiral Mike told them what needed doing, and then solicited strategies for how to achieve the organization's (our) objectives. Any admiral was free to offer ideas or ask questions.

 "Here's a strategy that worked..." "Have you considered..." "What is your plan if...?"

Admiral Boorda understood well that telling risks disenfranchising the very people you as a manager and leader depend upon to get the job done. Whereas asking engages everyone in meeting mission requirements.
Asking empowers people to experiment.
Asking elevates the problem from being the boss's problem to the organization's problem, and thereby engages everyone in solving "our" problem. 
Imagine your own worst boss. I bet he or she was a micromanager "teller." Now think about how you reacted whenever you were told no only what to do, but when and how. Did that make you feel empowered? Motivated? Respected? Typical reactions to being told how are anger and resentment.  Anger and resentment lead to a rising feeling of passive-aggressiveness. Once those negative emotions kick in, you are more likely to set aside the organization's mission in favor of revenge for the boss's slight.

If being led by telling had a similar effect on you, imagine how it will affect a staff member when it comes from you.

Tom Hilton is a retired NIH science officer, NIDA program officer, and U.S. Navy captain now in private practice. Tom has over 40 years of experience studying and conducting large-scale organizational change initiatives in publicly-traded corporations, DOD and other large federal agencies, as as general-medical and addiction health services organizations.

Read other posts by Tom Hilton:
Mythbusters: Change takes time. A lot of time.
Mythbusters: Staff don't want to help find solutions
Factors influencing organizations' use of NIATx

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