THE BLOG
01/12/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Why Managers Tell People What To Do

Despite the fact that younger members of the workforce are demanding the opportunity to think for themselves and contribute their brains as well as their brawn to their companies, many managers still insist on micromanaging their employees.

My experience in many firms is that most supervisors and mid-level managers who have had their jobs at least fifteen years think and act this way. The reason: They have the belief: The job of managers is to figure out what workers ought to do and then get them to do it.

Given the current commitment in many organizations to have managers listen to and empower their workers instead of "boss" them, this belief often prevents corporate policy from being implemented on lower levels.

The ability to assist managers to rid themselves of this belief would have a significant impact at many organizations. The following "case history" is a composite of several different conversations with managers at several companies. If you follow the same line of questioning, you, too, can produce the same results.

Most managers who have this belief generally state it as a fact, as something that is so obviously true that the manager isn't sure what there is to talk about. What else would a manager do other than figure what needs to be done and then get their employees to do it?

How to get rid of the belief

"Okay," I say, "you think it's the truth. Where did it come from? What did you experience in your life that led you to this belief?"

The answer is always some version of, "I see it every day"--and then they tell their daily war stories.

"I'm sure you do see it every day," I respond, "but what was the earliest experience that led to the belief? What happened yesterday isn't the source of the belief, because you believed it the day before yesterday, didn't you?"

They usually refer to their first job, sometimes a part-time job in high school, sometimes a summer job, and sometimes a first job after college. I ask them to describe what happened.

"Well, there was this guy, the manager, who told us what to do and how to do it--and then we did it. Sometimes, when he wasn't around, we goofed off. And when he was around, we worked harder."

I probe a little. "Did many of the workers initiate work that the manager didn't ask for?"

"A couple of workers sometimes, but most of us just did what we were told to do."

"Did you know what to do before the manager told you?"

"No."

"Did most of the other workers know what to do before the manager told them?"

"No."

"So what did managers do at your first job?"

"They told people what to do."

"And what did workers do?"

"What the managers told them to do."

Where the belief came from

"So your belief--The job of managers is to figure out what workers ought to do and then get them to do it. If managers don't tell people what to do, nothing will get done--was a logical conclusion for you based on your first couple of job experiences, wasn't it? It wasn't a silly or irrational conclusion. It really made sense, didn't it?"

The managers respond, "It sure did."

"Let's play a game," I say. "It's called Possibilities. Let's see if we can find ten possible explanations for, or interpretations of, what you observed in your first job, other than what you concluded. We aren't looking for a better explanation. The one you came up with is as good as any we'll find. But let's find ten more."

It only takes a few minutes to find them.

There are a lot of other interpretations

1. All the managers at that company told people what to do, but that might not be true at all companies.
2. The workers at that company only did what they were told to do, but at other companies they might do more on their own.
3. Managers acted that way in that industry, but not necessarily in all industries.
4. Those specific ten or twenty workers and managers I worked with acted that way; other workers and managers might not.
5. That behavior occurred in the particular corporate culture that existed at the time. It might not occur in any other type of corporate culture.
6. That behavior occurred in the United States. Managers and workers in Japan, Germany, or some other country might not exhibit that behavior at all.
7. That behavior occurred in the 1970s [or 1980s, or whenever], but it might not occur at another time in history.
8. Teenagers exhibit that type of behavior, but older workers might not.
9. Workers on their first job usually do only what managers tell them to do, but as they progress in their careers they might take more responsibility for their work and initiate things on their own.
10. That behavior occurs when you have workers who haven't had much training. If workers get training in what to do and how to do it, they might not need much supervision.

By this point it is clear that what the managers saw on their first job could be interpreted in several different ways, each one just as valid as the next.

"Can you see that what you concluded was a valid interpretation, but that it was no more valid than any of the others?" I ask.

"Sure."

"Didn't it seem to you at the time that right there on the factory floor or in the office, right next to the manager who was telling you what to do, you saw this 'thing' called, The job of managers is to figure out what workers ought to do and then get them to do it. If managers don't tell people what to do, nothing will get done?

"Yes, I saw it." They nod.

"Is it clear now that you never saw any such thing 'out there'?"

After pausing to reflect for a moment, they answer, "Yes."

"Well, if it didn't exist 'out there,' where was it?"

"It was an interpretation in my mind:'

"So," I ask, "is it your belief about your role 'the truth'?"

They laugh and say: "No. It isn't."

The belief is gone

It usually takes less than 15 minutes for a manager to eliminate this belief about the need to tell people what to do in order to get any work done.

Then I ask the managers who had resisted delegating, "Can you imagine your job being any different when you get back to work?"

"Yes. I see the possibility of asking workers instead of telling them. I get that they might have a lot to contribute that I never realized before. I realize that I could be their partner instead of their boss. Perhaps I have better things to do than look over their shoulders. I see that I have to look at each individual worker to determine how much guidance he or she needs; there is no one truth about all workers under all circumstances."

Try it and then share with us the changes you observe in your managers.

For more information about Morty Lefkoe and how his method for eliminating beliefs can improve business success, please go to http://lefkoe.com.