Don’t Be Bossy!


As a manager, it's always easy to solve problems by being bossy, by telling people to switch desks, to take on another project, or to join another team. However, it is much better to solve those same problems by asking people to move around. Unfortunately, this is usually also much more difficult.

Motivational Debt
I am the first to admit that I've done my share of bossing people around. "You, go sit over there! You there, finish this project! And you, make me a coffee latte, and go wash my socks!" Bossing people around is easy. And the sense of power can be addictive. But smart managers understand that they are creating motivational debt by being bossy.

People don't want to be told what to do. They want to be asked.

Every day I try to remind both myself and our managers that people must be asked to do a job. When people have not agreed to do something, you don't have their commitment. And when you don't have their commitment, you have a motivational problem on your hands. Telling people to do something they don't want is a sure-fire way to build up motivational debt. And debts need to be paid back, or else people will leave you standing in the cold.

Allow People to Say 'No'
Last week we (the managers) asked two of our employees to switch to another team. In both cases, we thought the work in the new team was more challenging, and the two candidates would be nuts to turn down this great offer. But both of them did! They were quite happy with the teams they were in, and the jobs they were doing now. (I am very glad we didn't just assume they would be happy with the transfer, as we would have created bigger problems than we had tried to solve.) Still, it came as a surprise, and having to look for other solutions doesn't make our mission any easier. But I am confident that the two candidates now feel good about having been considered and asked to participate.

And they will certainly feel good about being able to say 'No'.

Good management can make short-term problems harder to solve, but it will make long-term problems easier. In fact, good managers even tend to make each other's job more difficult. I am sure that the rejection by both candidates can be attributed, in part, to the leadership skills of their current team manager. I can imagine no better compliment for a manager than team members unwilling to leave for another team. As the manager in question said: "Well, it seems I'm doing at least something right!"

Replacing Instructions with Empowerment
But still I catch myself doing some things wrong, while alternatives can be easy to find. For example: I told our Business Consultants (acting as Product Owners) that they are required to deliver their requirements in the form of user stories. Sorry folks, that's me being bossy again! I can also simply ask them to do this. And I can tell our development teams that they have the freedom to refuse any requirements that are not delivered with user stories.

It is a simple case of replacing top-down instructions with bottom-up team empowerment.

Sure, the short-term problem of steering a ship is much harder without directly touching the wheel yourself. But the long-term problem of getting to your preferred destination is even harder when the unmotivated crew keeps jumping off the ship halfway through the journey.

Fortunately, I think we're learning quickly. With turnover at an all-time low our company is readying itself for some challenging uncharted waters. Now, the trip would be even more enjoyable with a cup of coffee.

Hello, is there anyone willing to make me that coffee latte…?

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  • http://timgolisch.wordpress.com TimG

    Excellent advice. Some of my colleagues don’t really understand this concept. Then they wonder why their turn-over is so high.
    The one thing you didn’t mention is how persuasion affects motivational debt (if at all). For example, if you believed it was in the best interest for those people to move (personal growth, etc) so you tried to persuade them to see the benefits (perhaps they were timid, hesitant and only needed a little nudge).

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