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Just tell me what to do

Just tell me what to do
Published: February 8, 2017
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We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, but have you actually acknowledged this out loud or in your thoughts? Has one of your direct reports voiced this to you? 

We like a challenge, us humans; it is all part of the hero’s journey. Overcoming obstacles and stretching ourselves to reach goals are key sources of motivation and satisfaction in our professional and personal lives.  
But we also like the easy path, particularly when time is limited and the stakes are high. When the pressure is on, we may easily withdraw, shrink, hide, defend, or relinquish responsibility to others, and perhaps for completely justifiable reasons. It may be the most appropriate response we know, or we may be just implementing failsafe strategies that have got us through similar situations before.  
It seems that through parental, societal, cultural, political and economic programming we have conditioned ourselves to prioritise answers, advice and direction from others, to the detriment of our own growth and path. Even though leadership can come from anyone, at any time, the ‘Great Man’ theory seems to be firmly entrenched in our psyche, business and politics. In VUCA times of stress, confusion and overwhelm, we particularly like the idea of being saved by someone else, so we turn to the ‘other’ to get them to do what we don’t want to do ourselves. Our reflexive response becomes ‘just tell me what to do in this project/for this client/in this situation/in my career’. It is easier to do this than self-reflect and manage the responsibility which comes thereafter.
As Hollis writes, ‘to recover our own personal authority is a daily task imposed upon all of us by the soul’. With that task in mind, we may want to explore the following:
Being aware: We should give ourselves credit for recognising this tendency; notice when it happens.
Understanding triggers:
What is going on for me when I default to others? What triggers such a response in me?
Challenging beliefs: In these instances, what am I believing? Is it true? What is it like to live with this belief in mind, heart and body? What would life be like if I didn’t hold this belief?
Building self-efficacy: As adults we can consciously build our self-efficacy, self-belief and confidence in the ability to exert control over our own motivation, behaviour and social environment. This may include, for example, acknowledging our successes, being self-compassionate, quietening our inner critic, or expanding our skills and interests to build up resourcefulness.

Reclaiming personal authority

As leaders we influence the environment in which people perform. What can we do to encourage people to reclaim their personal authority in the workplace?  

These questions may help with reflection and action:
What is my default leadership option? Am I quick to give advice and provide direction or do I use inquiry and coaching to help people come up with their own ideas and solutions? What is behind my propensity to give advice and opinions rather than asking for those of others? To what extent do I allow people to talk about their concerns and fears?
Which ego state am I operating from? Transactional Analysis offers a valuable perspective on how we interact with people through three parts of our personality or ‘ego states’. In terms of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, we operate from our experiences (‘child’), significant influencers (‘parent’) or in the present (‘adult’). For example, if we operate from a ‘critical parent’ place, it may trigger a ‘rebellious child’ in another. Being aware of how our behaviour impacts on others transforms communication and performance. 

What is my intent/agenda? As leaders we sometimes hide behind a coaching relationship, asking questions and giving the impression that we want the person to take initiative, but then we undermine them, having already made the decision or set the objectives. This is why it helps, particularly in formal one-on-ones and meetings, to be clear and ‘contract up front’ about expectations, such as whether we intend to depart information, seek input, or exchange ideas.

Or, in summary, what is missing? What am I noticing about how people are feeling and behaving? What do they need? More meaning, a sense of direction and purpose? To be valued, believed in and listened to more? Or do they need more structure and clarity? What will I do to help fill the vacuum?

Penelope Mavor, from Earth Converse, collaborates with Impact as an Associate. Her writing can be found on


Hollis, James (2005). Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. Gotham Books (US).

Napper, R and Newton T (2000). TACTICS: transactional analysis concepts for all trainers, teachers and tutors and insight into collaborative learning strategies. TA Resources Ipswich, UK, section 4.