Just tell me what to do

Just tell me what to do

Have you said or thought so much? 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 a goal is a key source of motivation and satisfaction in both our professional and personal lives.

But there are times when we just prefer to take the easy route. Particularly when time is limited, the stakes are high and the pressure is on. We may easily withdraw, shrink, hide, defend and relinquish responsibility to another.

And for completely justifiable reasons. It may be the most appropriate response given what we know. We may be just implementing our most loyal strategies that have got us out of similar situations before.

It seems that through parental, societal, cultural, political and economic programming we have conditioned ourselves to prioritize answers, advice and direction from others – sometimes to the detriment of our own growth and path. Even though leadership can come from anyone at anytime, the ‘Great Man’ theory seems to be firmly entrenched in our psyche, business and politics. Notably during uncertain and volatile times, we like the idea of someone saving us. 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 my career)”. What’s more, it is easier to do that 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, we may want to explore...

Being aware: We give ourselves credit for recognising this tendency we have, in the first place. And with a healthy dose of compassion and curiosity, 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 wasn't believing that?

Building self-efficacy: As adults we consciously can build our self-efficacy, our self-belief and confidence in the ability to exert control over our own motivation, behavior and social environment. This may include, for example, acknowledging our successes, being self-compassionate, quietening the inner critic’s voice and expanding our skills and interests to build up resourcefulness.

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’s my leadership default option? Am I quick to give advice, provide direction or do I seek to help people to come up with their own ideas and solutions through enquiring and coaching? What is behind my propensity to give advice and opinions rather than asking? To what extent do I allow people to talk about their concerns and fears?

What 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’). Simplifying it for illustrative purposes, if we operate from a ‘critical parent’, it may just trigger a ‘rebellious child’. Being aware of how our behaviour impacts on others transforms communication and performance.

What is my intent/agenda? Sometimes as leaders we ask or hide behind a coaching relationship, a question, the impression we want the person to take initiative, but then we undermine them, as we have already made the decision or set the objectives. This is why it helps, particularly in formal 1:1s and meetings, to be clear and ‘contract up front’ about expectations e.g. whether we intend to impart information, seek input or want to brainstorm.

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? Or 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 is a Consultant at Impact Italia.


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