A reader asks:
I've recently ascended rather quickly into a new leadership role at my company and I am struggling with communicating to those on my team such that everything is not a collaboration and debate. There are times when I need people to do what I am asking them to do, simple as that. Yesterday, a direct report looked at me and said, "Are you the lead on this or am I?" when I was instructing him on how a certain part of a project I'd assigned to him needed to be handled. Today I will have a conversation with him about how he is the lead on projects I assign him, but that he is under my direction, meaning when I step in and say something should be handled a certain way, it's not a suggestion, but a directive.
I believe in creative collaboration and it's important to me that all team members contribute ideas, but I also need to clearly communicate directives that are received as directives and not suggestions. I need to figure out how to stop talking/being heard like I'm asking for people's permission and buy-in, and start talking/being heard like the person in charge.
Much of this is about simply being clear with your language and your tone, so I’d start by taking a good look at those. For instance, consider the difference between these statements:
You might think that they’re both equally clear, but the first can be heard as a suggestion, whereas the second is a clear directive. So if your statements tend to sound more like the first example, try more directive language and see if that changes anything. Also, ensure that you’re speaking in declarative statements and not ending sentences with a question in your voice, unless you truly intend it as a question. If you sound hesitant or unsure, people will assume you’re not speaking with authority.
If you’re speaking clearly and confidently but still getting push-back, you can simply acknowledge the staff person’s different viewpoint but reiterate your request. For instance, if you assign a project that you need by Friday and encounter resistance, you might say, “Thanks for that input. I do need you to do this by Friday, but I appreciate hearing your point of view.”
And if you notice a pattern of directives being ignored – or if someone openly undermines your authority – then you need to tackle that directly. For instance: “Bob, there are times when I’m going to look to you for input and ideas before we solidify our plans, and I value the contributions you make to those discussions. However, I’m going to make the final call on some things, and there are times when I’ll simply need to assign you work and know that it will be done in the way that I’ve requested. For instance, with the XYZ project, my instructions to you there weren’t suggestions, but you seemed to respond as if they were. Is there a better way for us to communicate in those situations?”
Of course, in all these cases, make sure that you really are listening when your staff pushes back – they might be giving you important input that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Don’t get so caught up in asserting your authority that you miss valuable information or tune out viewpoints that are worth hearing. (And in fact, adjusting a directive based on new information can strengthen, rather than weaken, your position, because it demonstrates that you’re not defensive or insecure -- two hallmarks of managers who don't trust in their own authority.)
And finally, eventually this should all start feeling more natural. When you’re truly confident in your own authority, you can simply be calm, direct, and straightforward – in assigning work, in asking what’s going on if someone doesn’t respond well to that, and -- also key -- in creating consequences if the problem continues.