How Can You Communicate With More Authority as a Manager?

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:

  • “It would be great if you talked to Kathy and got her thoughts on this before you start working on it.”
  • “Please talk with Kathy this week and incorporate her input in your draft before you send it to me.”

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.

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  • NewTeamManager

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time. This week, I’m taking on a management role in my team, in which I used to be an individual contributor. Some of my peers have shown no difficulty with my new role, but others have been more skeptical. I will definitely be implementing your suggestions soon!

  • cburke

    I have been a manager on and off for the past 15 years. This is an excellent, balanced answer. When I first started leading people, I had a lot of trouble with this – the “subtle” difference between your two example statements eluded me somehow (although now those two statements appear radically different to me). When I finally learned how to be clear with what I was asking it was like magic. Both I and my employees were much happier as a result. I believe, generally speaking, people want to know what’s expected of them – usually because they’re trying to do a good job. The more clear you can be in this regard the more you empower everyone to succeed.

    • Totally agree! It’s funny, managers often shy away from being direct because they think it will rub their staff members the wrong way … when in fact, most employees appreciate hearing clear and direct messages (and, as you say, are happier when they do).

  • At what point does this

    “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.”

    become micromanagement?

    • It depends on the details, but it sounds perfectly reasonable to me that the letter-writer would have times when she needs to give directives. Most managers do, especially with junior level staff, in particular.

      Micromanagement is when a manager is dictating exactly how to do the work and watching over every step in the process, refusing to truly delegate any decisions. But good managers ARE heavily involved in setting goals and ensuring that people are clear on the desired outcomes, and they do check in on progress throughout the course of the work, making course corrections when necessary. They’ll also get more hands-on when there’s a performance problem. So it’s not as simple as “never give directives” — there are lots of times when it makes sense to.

  • New Manager

    Thank you for this post. I definitely fall into the “It would be great if you could…” communicatin style with my direct reports and I know it is undermining effective communication. Your advice is extremely practical and helpful. Thanks so much!

    • It might also help to keep in mind that even if you feel weird being more directive, your reports probably won’t find it weird at all. After all, you probably don’t think twice about it when your own manager frames requests like that to you, right? Same thing with your own reports 🙂

  • Julie K

    When I became a manager for the first time, I was worried that if I said “yes” to team members’ suggestions, they would think I was a pushover. But Alison’s right – it was the other way around. In fact, my team members were making reasonable requests/suggestions, and they really appreciated it when I took these suggestions seriously. We weren’t able to implement all of them, but I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t need say “no” immediately (which is what the previous manager did), and that I would be doing my job better if I listened and thought about it and then made a decision.

    • Julie K

      I was going to give an example, and then I couldn’t remember the details, but they came back to me! One of the team members sometimes came in a few minutes late because she took her son to school, and I told her she needed to be on time. She came back with an idea – she said that sometimes she’s a few minutes early and sometimes she’s a few minutes late, so what if she kept track of the time and made sure it “evened out” to 40 hours/week? I thought about it and realized that it wouldn’t affect our team’s work and that I was fine with it. At first, it felt “wrong” to let her do this, but there really wasn’t a reason not to, and I trusted her to keep accurate track of her time. It worked out fine. That’s the kind of thing our previous manager would have said “no” to without considering it. I’m glad I learned that I didn’t need to be bureaucratic just because I was a manager. There were other times when I allowed behavior that I shouldn’t have (and I learned from those mistakes), but this wasn’t one of those times. This employee had proven her trustworthiness, and I never had a problem with anything she and I agreed to.

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  • Nicole Kiefer

    This article is really helpful. It contains lots of information required to play a leading role in a company. I have been a manager for almost 6 months now and in the beginning it was very very difficult. I was intimidated because I don’t have much experience and I feared, that my employees wouldn’t take me seriously. I sought help on a website called Your24hCoach .. I don’t know if you heard of it; on this website you can find listings of professionals who are willing to consult you directly over the website! I experienced Your24hCoach as a helpful and quick help for issues like that. You should check it out, in case this article doesn’t give sufficient information!

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