Breaking the Mold of Waiting to Be Told

In a blog post entitled "The relentless search for 'tell me what to do'" guru Seth Godin writes:
If you've ever hired or managed or taught, you know the feeling.

People are just begging to be told what to do. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is: "If you tell me what to do, the responsibility for the outcome is yours, not mine. I'm safe."

When asked, resist.
Godin is correct that resisting the temptation to tell people what to do is required. But it also is important to consider why people feel the need to seek such direction. Equally if not more culpable are the managers or bosses whose mindset and actions foster a Wait to be Told culture.
  • It's hard to assume responsibility for decisions you're not allowed to make.
  • Always having to get someone's approval to act inhibits you exercising initiative.
  • You lose your desire to innovate if your new ideas are always rejected at the top.
  • It is tough to know what to do if leaders fail to articulate and reinforce understanding of mission, vision, and strategy.
Too many managers still operate from a command and control paradigm, one that fosters the very "tell me what to do mindset" Godin bemoans.

No doubt some prospective volunteers or employees come into an organization wanting to be told what to do. Perhaps their past experience with ill-conceived management is the real source of that expectation.

Until our organizational cultures advance the real sources of individual motivation as addressed in Dan Pink's new book Drive—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—we should expect little to change.

If you want more people exercising initiative, here a few simple steps to take.
  • Ensure proper orientation of new employees and volunteers, including a evaluation question at the end: What additional information/support do you need in order to feel like you can effectively do your work?
  • Clearly articulate upfront permissions to act—across the org and in specific roles—and the expectation that people do so.
  • Examine all organizational processes and policies to see where unhelpful permission-seeking may be required. Revise as appropriate.
  • Regularly ask individuals: What is getting in the way of you taking more initiative in your work.
  • When in your eyes individuals seek your approval or permission unnecessarily talk with them about what cased the to do so and coach them accordingly.
Here are four vignettes reflecting staff members at different stages in their work with an organization. They can be used as a discussion prompt in a meeting or workshop focusing on initiative. 

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