Always Doing What You’re Told

Always Doing What You’re Told

November 4th, 2009 // 11:10 am @

I once overheard a manager in my group say, “At the end of the day, people just want to be told what to do”.

 Now, this was a high level manager – a very intelligent person who was extremely professional and well-regarded throughout the company.

 After reading this, and judging from this one statement without knowing this person, I’d like to ask you the following questions:

  •  What kind of leadership presence or style do you think this manager demonstrated in conversations and meetings? How would you characterize the dialogue you would have expected to occur?
  • How do you think this manager would have described traits of “good leadership”?
  • How do you think the people on this manager’s team tended to conduct themselves when performing their roles?
  • In what ways would you expect this manager invest in the people on their team?
  • What implicit opinion did this manager have of the capability and intelligence of their team?
  • How much innovation do you think came from this team?

 There are at least two important concepts you can learn from this exercise.

 First, as you have probably already deduced, a manager can demonstrate to their team a lot about their belief system in just a single statement. Among other things, the statement I shared with you probably delivers some version of the following messages:

  • One person (me or my boss) has all the answers.
  • Your opinion isn’t really valued or even considered.
  • Don’t ever really think much about, or question, what I ask you to do – you are expected to just do it.
  • The definition of success here is compliance – do what I ask you to do.

 Of course, this was just one isolated statement from a manager so, you don’t know if the actions this manager took re-enforced their statement (and/or your view of their statement) or if they countered it. For all you know, this manager may have misspoken this time and all other indications were that they valued an open dialogue and empowered their employees on a daily basis.

 Which leads to the second concept: Mental Models. What did your answers to my questions above indicate about what opinion you formed of this manager simply by the statement they made? Did you come to a conclusion about whether or not this was someone you would want to work with or for? Were you open to their leadership style?

 The fact is, we as humans, are quick to form patterns of thought about people based on our personal experiences and deeply held biases. Sometimes it is called a “worldview”, “mental models” and sometimes it is just plain prejudice. If we are honest, everybody does it, but the ultimate goal should be to constantly challenge ourselves and our “mental models” in order to maintaining an open dialogue. Because, when we create an environment that aspires to an open dialogue, we can best guard against both the stifling edicts of “just do what you are told” and the temptation to respond by labeling the manager a “jerk” who doesn’t care about me as a person. As in many cases, the reality is probably somewhere in the gray area in-between.

 So, in the end, it probably depends on what kind of team you are trying to build. Do you want to build an organization that works like a machine in that everyone is just a cog in wheel? There certainly are roles for people who simply want to come in to work and just sit there until they are told to do something. However, most of those jobs don’t pay very much and even if they aren’t being automated or outsourced to another country with cheaper labor, turnover is usually pretty high. And, even if this is the kind of positions a person thinks they want, are we doing them a disservice to allow them to stagnate in a position that isn’t causing them to grow and stretch themselves?

 Ultimately, we all want to build a team where everyone has value and input; a voice that is being heard. Because, if you are told what to do every day, you build a culture based on compliance, not commitment. And, organizations that succeed in the long-term, consistently exceed customers’ expectations, constantly adapt to the changing marketplace, capture the passion of their employees, and differentiate themselves and their products will have to utilize the principles of The Organic Enterprise.

 How do we create that kind of an organization? One way is to use the example we just considered and change your behavior to create a more open environment. One simple exercise I’ve used successfully to facilitate a more open environment and stimulate shared decision making with the “Nominal Group Technique” (Evans & Lindsey, Six Sigma Process Improvement). One of the primary advantages of this technique is that it balances the power of each individual on the team in the decision making process and it works like this:

 Request that all participants (usually 5-10 persons) write or say which problem or issues they feel is most important

  1. Record all problems and issues & develop a master list.
  2. Distribute the master list (in no particular order) to each participant and have them assign a point value to what they consider to be their top 5 problems or issues.
  3. Tally the results by adding all point values and rank the cumulative top 2 or 3 for the team as a whole
  4. Discuss the results and develop an action plan.

 With this exercise, and with all due respect to Nike, an organization can become less about “Just Do It” and more about “Let’s Do It”!

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