The scenario is an encounter between parent and child, but it has practical ramifications for every leader.
"Sit down," says the parent. "No" comes the reflexive response of the suddenly not so cute three year old. "I told you, sit down!" "Why?" The child retorts. "Because I said so!" comes the redundant response. Unimpressed by the rationale, another "No" defiantly follows. "Sit down or you'll be in trouble" comes the more sternly worded directive. This time the "No" is not quite so confident. "Sit down or I'll take away your (fill in the child's most precious possession). Now, sensing this might actually be serious, the child complies, but retorts, "OK, I'll sit down, but on the inside I'm standing up."
The adult version of this exchange plays itself out repeatedly in the workplace.
What manager hasn't sensed a similar dilemma with their employees?
You may ultimately get compliance, but there's that nagging doubt that someone's not all in. You finally get the "yes," but the performance that follows is lackluster, inconsistent and quickly fades without constant prodding and directing. Why? Because getting a yes requires an inside-out strategy.
Or perhaps you've been on the other end of the conversation. You are being required to do things one way, and you resist. Eventually, you are worn down and comply, but suddenly work is just harder, energy sputters, passion evaporates. Why? Because giving a yes requires an inside-out strategy.
For the parent-manger in you, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder.
First, threats don't work long term, and repeated threats without follow through serve only to undermine your credibility.
Second, directives are best received when paired with context.
The automatic “why” offered by a resistant child is not always an expression of rebellion; for some, it is a legitimate request for understanding. The same is true for our direct reports. When we to elaborate on the reasoning behind our requests, receptivity is often enhanced. Typically, it is in the context (or more accurately the perceived context) where we find the genesis of the power-struggle. Getting context out in the open is a great first step in revealing unspoken conflict.
Requests coupled with a contextual frame invite dialogue, discussion, and even disagreement. However, most managers prefer not to share the rationale behind their directives because doing so provides potential data for debate and resistance. But then again, is the goal compliance or buy-in? Of course, be sure to discern when the exploration of creative options is advantageous, and when it is counterproductive. Again, the issue is whether you want an outside yes, or an inside yes. Are those you lead healthy followers, or do you just want "follower-sheep?"
Rationale also needs to be aligned with purpose.
Daniel Pink in his book Drive, expands on the importance of "why" when he states:
"In business, we tend to obsess over the 'how'-as in 'Here's how to do it.' Yet we rarely discuss the 'why'-as in 'Here's why we're doing it.' But it's often difficult to do something exceptionally well if we don't know the reasons we're doing it in the first place."
Commands may bring compliance, but context brings cooperation. If you want cooperation, work the inside, not the outside.
And what about the child in all of us who wants to stand up when we’re supposed to be siting down? That’s Part II.