“Why Don’t You Just…”

Most leaders will at least superficially agree that organizations with an aligned, empowered workforce are more effective; that decisions are faster when made at lower levels that are closer to the actual facts; and that work teams are the ones in the best position to improve their own processes.

Most would agree that they would prefer their people to take initiative to come up with the best way to solve a problem.

Here’s a quiz.

Take a look at this old photo (it’s real, not staged!), and try to imagine what you think day-to-day interactions with this commander would be like.

Now… answer this question:

How much day-to-day initiative do you think the four officers in this photograph would show when the boss isn’t right there?

What does he teach them to do when he is talking to them?

Why would we expect they would learn to do anything else other than what they are being taught in the course of those day-to-day interactions?

This is, of course, an extreme case, meant to make a point.

But listen to your day to day interactions with your own people.

Do you give them directions they are expected to follow? Those directions, by the way, can take very innocuous forms. They can be disguised as suggestions, “Why don’t you just…” or “Have you considered…?” as well as just being orders.

You can think you are “correcting” or “teaching” people when your language actually is communicating something quite different.

You are teaching your people every time you talk to them. They will answer the questions you ask. If you make a habit of overriding their ideas, they will learn to not bother to work very hard to develop those ideas. If you argue with them, they will quickly learn to give in, or even just wait until you make up your mind. Any time you are making declarative statements about what should be done you are eroding initiative a little.

Frankly, from their perspective, it is a lot easier to just wait for the boss to give direction and follow it than it is to take initiative. There is much less psychological risk and energy involved. And if the organization has a history of risk-aversion you have an uphill battle to begin with.

It only takes a few negative experiences to stamp out initiative.

A thought experiment:

You wish people would take more initiative, self-organize the right people to work on problems in your organization.

Someone is working on understanding a problem or improvement. They come to you with a fairly decent picture of the current condition, but their next step isn’t the one you think they should take.

You have an overwhelming urge to say “Why don’t you just…” and get to a workable solution fast.

If you do so, what have they just learned?

You cannot simultaneously maintain full control and develop initiative.

One thought on ““Why Don’t You Just…”

  1. To make sure that your team is trying things out failure must also be considered a success.

    “If you do nothing you won’t make a mistake”

    So a good boss should not only allow ideas, he also should back up “failure”.

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