Let the People do their Job

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

George S. Patton 

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been trying to carry out a task, and a manager (or someone else) has started to dictate how to do it, even though the task may fall squarely within your expertise and role description? How did that make you feel? What did you do? What was the outcome?

A number of years ago, I worked in a team of technical professionals. We had a very new manager in charge of one of the accounts that we were supporting. Invariably, he would question how the team was trying to achieve its goals, insist that all technical solutions be implemented his way, escalate to (global) management if we didn’t do it his way, and over-ride all technical advice that we provided to the client. This was done in forums where the client had visibility of our organisation, so the team often felt attacked in front of the client.

The team had a defined set of standards to follow. There was “best practice” to consider, as well as ensuring that commercial protection was provided to our organisation and the client. This manager did not take any of that into consideration when instructing people to do it his way. He appeared to operate on the assumption that he knew best. As a result, he used this knowledge to order people around.

When people succumbed to taking his orders, results were produced that did not have the best long term impact on our client or our organisation. This then resulted in the same manager taking the team to task over the outcome and further telling them how to do the next step in the process.

Not listening to him and following the set standards and procedures resulted in him questioning (and sometimes berating) the team in front of the client and global leadership. The team also felt under-valued, not listened to, and disrespected. Some of these people had been subject matter experts in their field for years and were very well-respected professionals. In my assessment, this manager was neither understanding that nor using it to his advantage.

My learning from this particular situation was – don’t tell the people how to do their job. If you have employed people for their specialist skill set, let them use those skills to surprise you with the results. Trust them, develop them, and empower them to give them the outcomes that you require. Ask yourself whether the “how” is important. If it is, explain that to the team; tell them why it is important, and let them complete the task. If it isn’t, then is there any harm in trusting the experts?

I really like the quote at the beginning of this post, but I would probably change it slightly – I would say “…tell them what you are aiming to achieve, and let them surprise you with the results”. The team will require an understanding of the outcome that is required. They will need to understand any restrictions and caveats, and they will need to understand priorities, etc.

In most cases, people will be able to work out what steps to take and how to take those steps. And, if they can’t, then are you providing an environment in which they feel comfortable asking for help? If they do ask for help, remember again that the best approach may not be to tell them what to do next or how to do it. Perhaps a more useful approach is to coach them to an appropriate solution and to ensure that you can provide them with the additional resourcing, tools or process required to complete the task.

How do you use your people to achieve outcomes? How is that working for you? What could you improve?

2 thoughts on “Let the People do their Job

  1. I felt I only needed to know enough to know if my team member knew enough to do their job. I could assess their judgement, problem solving skills, and technical skills through a few well placed questions. Sometimes a push in the right direction. Very rarely overrule. Mostly, let them do the job, as usually they had more hands on expertise than I did anyway.

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    1. Understanding enough to know when additional guidance and support might be required is key, I think. This can require a lot of trust – in yourself and also in your people – but it is also helps in empowering people. In my assessment, it is rather wasteful to employ people for a specific area of expertise and then not allow/enable them to use that expertise. TCL


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