When people just want you to tell them what to do!

I am unashamedly passionate about the need for leaders to become masterful communicators, this means that leaders need  

  • to learn to have powerful conversations – one conversation at a time 
  • to stimulate quality thinking 
  • to hold people accountable to useful effort  
  • to create insight & behaviour change and  
  • to focus people on ‘useful activity’ rather than ‘interesting distraction  

Taking a coaching approach to conversation is a powerful skill. 

But what do you do when the people you are trying to support just want you to tell them what to do? What do you do? when they don’t want to be asked the hard questions and they actively avoid and even resent, having to take responsibility and make tough decisions.    

The human brain does not like to be told what to do, so why do we find so many employees wanting a quick answer from the boss?    

Firstly, we must take into consideration, that essentially, your brain is lazy – and for good reason.  You (and all of us) exist in a socially sophisticated world with a primitive brain and that presents us with challenges. One of the brain’s KPI’s is its capacity to conserve energy and as quality thinking, particularly if not well supported or collaborative in nature, can be effortful and therefore actively avoided.    

Secondly, your brain is designed to hardwire (automate) behaviour. Any thinking or behavioural pattern, useful or not, that is repeated is deliberately directed to your ‘automatic brain’ and turned into a habit.   

Are you in the ‘habit’ of providing quick answers to the questions that your people fire at you all day long and are you in the habit of making their decisions for them?  

This habit, combined with their brain’s desire to conserve energy, means you potentially have team members that will come to expect this and will avoid going beyond their mental comfort zones.   

Hardwired habits are light on energy, so when you challenge someone to start thinking more deeply for themselves when this is not normal behaviour for them, you are asking their brain to use more energy than it’s used to, which the brain will naturally resist.    

The implications of being a boss that ‘tells’ and ‘solves’ are threefold:   

  1. People get lazy and expect that the boss will do the heavy mental lifting, and this results in day-long interruptions to your focus and a drain on YOUR mental energy.
  2. The boss (YOU) ends up doing everybody’s job for them, and that leaves insufficient time (and brain fuel) to do the heavy mental lifting for your own job (i.e., ‘I don’t have time for the strategic thinking I should be doing!).  You end up with everyone else’s monkeys on your back.
  3. And then when it all turns bad, whose fault is it – the boss (YOU AGAIN) 

It’s not my fault, Jane told me to do that!’ 

So back to the issue of the brain not wanting to be told what to do.  When you tell people what to do, their brain processes that as ‘you think I’m not capable’.   

Consider this, when people are asking you what to do, the asking is more of a checking, a test to see if their thinking or idea is, in fact, correct.  Their fear of being wrong means that they may pretend that they don’t know, when in fact, they may have some great ideas or have done a great deal of thinking around the issue 

You would have experienced personally, situation where you asked someone for advice and their well-intentioned response is peppered with ideas and thinking that you already knew or have tried – and we quickly tune out when that happens.   

To be effective, leaders must strike a balance between  

  • supporting the thinking of others  
  • providing both technical and relational advice that is useful   

In my brain-based coaching skills programConversations of Substance, we investigate what I call Accountability Questions – questions that hold others accountable to do some of the thinking in solving problems 

Here are some questions, that will help you subtly begin to shift the balance of mental energy consumption, get some monkeys off your back, and motivate your people to engage in some great thinking and self-accountability.    

  • What are your thoughts?
  • What DO you know about this so far? 
  • What specifically are you clear about and what are you not so clear about? 
  • What thinking or research have you already done?  
  • What have you already tried? 
  • What do you THINK you need to do? 
  • What specifically is the missing information or decision you need from me? 

Asking a few qualifying questions can save everybody a lot of time! 

Challenge yourself to get into the habit of asking these types of questions before launching into solution mode and you will find you will lighten your own mental load and support others to do better thinking and to learn and grow. 


Michelle Loch

Michelle Loch is a renowned Thought Leader, Speaker, Author and Mentor who is passionate about Leadership and Conversational Mastery.

Michelle works with individuals and organisations to REWIRE their leadership approach to meet the needs and demands of modern humans and the modern world!

She is an expert in Neuroleadership, a field of study that takes the latest in social cognitive neuroscience and applies it in a practical way to the art of leadership. Her specific expertise and passion lie in the neuroscience of human motivation, self-leadership and powerful conversation.

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