Monday, November 30, 2015

The Importance of Being Direct

I got some great advice from a colleague a few days ago.

"You need to be more direct," she said. "People don't know what you want them to do unless you tell them."

In theory, it seems obvious. If you expect a certain action or behavior out of someone who reports to you, you need to tell them what it is. How else are they going to know what your expectations are? Will they read your mind?

In practice, however, I've found that it can be a little more complicated. If I'm your supervisor, then there are clearly things that I want you to do and clearly things that I don't want you to do. Communicating those expectations is fairly straightforward. But there are also ways I want you to act and ways I don't want you to act. And decisions I would want you to make in certain circumstances and decisions I wouldn't want you to make in other circumstances. In each of these latter two examples, I've sometimes found myself avoiding direct communications out of a concern that I would be micromanaging a set of tasks or reneging on the delegation that is required for staff empowerment.

In other words, I don't want employees who only do what I say. I prefer employees who know what to do without me having to tell them.

My error has been in thinking that being direct in these latter two cases is necessarily different than being direct in the first case. When I want you to report to work every morning at 8:00 AM, after all, it is fairly easy to be direct. But when I want you to act with a thirst for knowledge about the industry we represent, or when I want you to decide the best use of the resources delegated to you in furtherance of your program objective, it has always seemed more difficult to be direct. Because in these two cases being direct feels too much like having to tell you how to demonstrate that thirst for knowledge and which resource decisions to make.

But that's not what being direct means.

Being direct means telling you that I expect you to demonstrate a thirst for knowledge for the industry we represent, and that I expect you to go out of your way to let me and others in the organization know everything that you are learning.

Being direct means telling you that you must make the resource decisions for your own programs, and that your success will be measured on your ability to meet the program goals without going over budget.

What I've come to understand is that being direct about what to do and being direct about how to act and what decisions to make are only different in the sense that means are different from ends. Always be direct about means when the means are important. But only be direct about ends when the means are not important or they are better kept out of your direct control.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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