Instead of Giving Orders, Offer Direction and Ask Questions

businesswoman leading a meeting
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Many people believe that to be an effective manager you have to give orders to the people on your team or in your department. They are wrong. Orders should be reserved for emergency situations. Instead, offer direction and encourage employees to define the best way forward through the use of open-ended questions. 

Orders Stifle Critical Thinking and Reduce Creativity

When you give orders, you tell someone to do something.

"Put that file on my desk," is an order. So is, "Put Roger on the late shift." When you give an order, you do not allow the other person any latitude to think about what to do or how to do it. All they can do is comply with your order. By doing this, you are suppressing creative and critical thinking and problem-solving and stifling learning. 

Instead of giving orders and telling someone what to do, good managers offer direction and provide high-level instructions. Instead of telling people how to do something, you tell them what you want done and leave the rest up to their efforts.

The Power of Asking for Input Instead of Issuing an Order

A more effective approach than issuing orders is to describe the work to be completed and ask for ideas and input. Most people prefer to have some degree of control over how they complete their work. Your role as a manager is to describe the end goal or target.

You own the "What" however, where possible, delegate the "How" to encourage buy-in and stimulate creative thinking. 

When you tell an employee what you want done, instead of giving an order, you give them the freedom to come up with their best way of completing the task. They are challenged to think for themselves and even to think creatively.

While their ideas may not always match your view on the best method to complete the assignment, it is important to recognize there may be multiple effective methods to get the job done. Perhaps the employee will will come up with a better approach. 

Learn to present new assignments as challenges. Describe the underlying problem to be solved or opportunity to be realized. If possible, describe the goals for the assignment. And then, draw upon one of the manager's most effective questions: "How do you want to go about tackling this assignment?"

Use follow-on questions, including:

  • What do you perceive are the different approaches to completing this assignment?
  • Which of the possible approaches do you perceive you will take?
  • What are the benefits to your approach?
  • What are some of the potential risks? 
  • What help will you need from myself or others? 

Your open-ended questions are empowering for your employees. Instead of requiring them to conform to their perception of your method, you are encouraging them to think broadly about the task and the implications of the different approaches. Your willingness to let them select the approach shows that you trust them to make good decisions. Your challenge to think through the potential risks increases their possibility of avoiding or mitigating those risks.

Do Be Specific About the Intended Results

Orders are generally very clear while describing the task and desired results leaves room for interpretation. So when you give instructions instead of orders, you need to explicitly define the intended results. 

Instead of saying, "I'd like you to review the past month's data and get back to me on it," be more precise. For example, you could say, "Please review the past month's data. Ideally, I would love to hear your analysis of the data and recommendations for how we should proceed. The management team is looking for our ideas on the new project investments and your efforts here are critical to this initiative. The meeting is on Thursday, so if you complete this by Tuesday, it gives us time to talk through your findings and recommendations during our weekly meeting on Wednesday morning. Thanks!" 

When setting direction, always highlight:

  • What you are asking for.
  • The use or context of the assignment.
  • The intended outcomes. 
  • The time-frame or as needed, specific due date.
  • Your appreciation for the individual's efforts. 

When Orders are Acceptable

Exceptions to the "Don't give orders" rule include situations involving emergencies or the health or safety of individuals. The right orders at the right time can save lives, prevent injuries, and stave off potential disasters. From military to law enforcement to firefighting or the hospital emergency room or surgery suite, there absolutely are situations where direct orders are required. However, if your environment is less volatile than those situations, use orders sparingly. 

The Bottom Line:

Your job as a manager is to get things done. However, it also means getting things done through others. When you give orders, you limit the group to your level of expertise. When you give instructions, you let the employees contribute whatever they can. The next time you start to give an order, give instructions instead. Tell the employee clearly want you want done. Let them figure out how to do it. It is a better solution for both of you.