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Don't people like being told what to do and how to do it?

A straight “yes” or “no” answer oversimplifies the complexity of this issue and the broad spectrum of people in the workplace. We know in ourselves that being dictated to is disempowering and ultimately leads to disengagement, but we can also understand the secure feeling of knowing you are acting on a well communicated and clear instruction. Part of our humanity is our capacity for self-expression and right to personal agency, so finding the balance between absolute servitude at one end of the spectrum and absolute self-centeredness at the other is as much a question of human dignity as it is one of governance.

We find this balance through relationship and the need to operate in community. Some issues to consider when finding your balance:

Rules over Relationship

People like to be told what to do because it is in our human nature to look for rules and instructions over the alternative - relationship and ownership. Rules are easy, relationship can be hard.

The Joy of Mastery

Consider the child who discovers they can complete the maths question without parental guidance, or the worker who can fix that IT problem without managerial oversight. There is joy in these moments. Too much instruction not only robs us of this joy but also of confidence and curiosity - a cycle that feeds our want of instruction.

Exhaustion is Rife

The rhythm of modern life is exhausting if not unchecked. And we are not good at rest. When tiredness is the systemic norm, it is little wonder that taking instruction is preferable to bringing our whole selves to a challenge  - that requires energy.

Conditioned for Instruction

The dominant cultural norm (in the West) offers freedom with one hand but perpetuates a leader/follower dynamic with the other. This conditioning to receive instruction and know our place starts very early - the school system we have created being where it takes root. So, we learn not to take much ownership because we’ve always been told someone else has everything under control. So it is not surprising that, by the time we reach the workplace, looking for instruction is our default.

A Lack of Context

Employees are often highly uninformed about the bigger picture their work forms part of. Ideally, we would all like to know what greater vision or purpose our work is forming part of. Without it is very hard to successfully take initiative.


“Can you remember any instance in which something that was assigned to you brought you more joy than something you chose to do? No? Well, neither can anyone else in your company. Human beings are most enthusiastic when they’re doing the things they want to do.”

Gary Hamel, The Future of Management

“The role of leadership is to confront people with their freedom.”

Peter Block

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  1. John Featherby

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