The one thing directive leaders need to change to be more effective.

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“I am a leader in my organization and I am not getting the results I would like. I tell people what to do but things don’t happen. It’s like my people don’t hear me. What’s your advice?” These were the words of an old colleague who sought out my counsel.

Leadership is one of those subjects where there are ironies, for instance, this case, how do I move people in the right direction without just telling them where to go?

Well, the answer is actually simple. Just ask more questions. Involve people, engage with them. Leadership is not a one-way street, at least not if you want it to be effective.

Look, there are two chief methodologies. One is to direct, the other is to influence, and there are times where each can be appropriate. For example, your child is just about to place their hand on a hot stove, what would the appropriate leadership style be? A) Shout to them (directive), “don’t touch that stove” or B) start a coaching conversation (influential) about safety. I would submit that A would be the most effective method for the moment. A conversation can ensue once safety is ensured. Point? There are times where a directive approach is necessary. The problem is that most people put into leadership roles typically default to it and rarely deviate. That was the position of my former colleague.

Why worry about other styles, directing has worked before, why fix what’s not broken? Well you see, it’s about human nature, and human nature must always be taken into account. Most people respond best to leadership when they are involved as equals rather than ordered around like subservient drones. It’s just the way humans are. They like autonomy. It feels safer and more satisfying, and it’s importance has grown over time due to more education and technological advancement.

This, though, is a challenge and a conundrum for leaders who’ve been fed a steady diet of command and control. If leadership is about moving people toward something whether that something is a business goal, planting a garden, or the liberation of a nation, how do you do that and give people autonomy?

Answer. You must employ what Edgar Schein calls humble inquiry. This means approaching people with curiosity in order to ask questions and humbling yourself to listen for their unique perspective and expertise. By doing so, you will energize them and achieve more because people are more willing to take ownership for results when they have input into the solutions for getting them.

So, if you want a team who can do more, you have to stop trying to do everything yourself, and while telling people what to do all of the time isn’t exactly doing it all yourself, it’s damn close to it. A directive approach might get you where you want to go but much like an annoying backseat driver, it may make people want to go another way out of spite.

Hence my advice. Tell less and ask more. Get your team members involved in more than the tasks at hand, get their brains involved as well. It’s not hard, it’s just uncomfortable because it means not having all of the answers even when you might.

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