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When You Should Ask — Not Tell — Subordinates What to Do

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Your instinct as a first-time manager is to tell people what to do. It’s not asking versus telling, it is telling versus asking.

After all, you’re in charge, and that’s what bosses do.

Or not.

Telling works great in fire drills, emergency rooms, and battlefield situations. In most other settings, asking is your go-to approach.

It’s easy to bark orders. Instead of wasting your valuable time explaining, you point and command. Telling is a go-to tactic for many managers.

It’s a lousy tactic.

Telling minimizes time-wasting dialog. It optimizes compliance. It reduces variation.

After all, you’re in charge.

Asking versus telling takes time. It requires you to provide context. It only works if you’ve invested time in training and teaching.

Questions are powerful teaching tools.

Asking introduces variation. Some call that creativity or innovation.

But most of all, asking shows respect. It indicates that you care about their opinions. You value their ideas, and you want them to think independently.

It reinforces the idea that people can think and act for themselves and not wait for you to signal the next step.

And importantly, asking requires that you listen.

Listening is another form of showing respect.

When you ask, you are faced with options and approaches that don’t match your ideas. The hard part is acknowledging these different ideas might be better than yours.

Ask, watch, and learn.

After all, you are in charge. You’re in charge of teaching, listening, supporting, and helping. You will learn along the way.

Quit telling and start asking.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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