Directive and Non-Directive Management

15 May

What do leaders do, when they want to help? When our subordinates have some difficulties the natural urge is to step in and tell them what to do. If we had a similar experience, it only seems natural to share it with other people.

For example, you have this great employee Lisa*. She is a top performer and is well-respected by her teammates — definitely leadership material. You want to promote her, she agrees, and everything works out pretty well. With time, the team Lisa leads grows and she hires more people.

But in a month or two, though, she confides that she has a problem. Her old colleagues, the ones who were her peers before the promotion, do not seem to respect her authority. When she assigns them tasks they sometimes refuse to do it, not confrontationally, but just as if it was a friendly suggestion, not an actual assignment from a manager.

What will you do as Lisa’s manager? Will you advise her to discuss this problem in one-to-one meetings with them? Will you give her some other advice?

This is a directive approach. We direct the action of the other person. The major advantage of a directive approach is that it’s quick. You save a lot of time by providing a solution. Also, that way, we show that we care — we don’t leave her alone in this situation.

But there are also possible downsides:

1. You may not be aware of important pieces of context.

It’s not a mathematical equation which has one correct answer and a linear algorithm to find a solution. It is a complex problem which includes actions, thoughts, and emotions of different people.

The information you have comes from Lisa’s brief explanation. Whatever good advice you have, it is shaped by this brief explanation and your interpretation of it. You barely see the tip of the iceberg.

What sounds like a problem of establishing authority for you, for Lisa, can mean a problem of how do I keep from losing my friends. And a solution for the first one can be a disaster for the second one.

2. The person won’t learn how to address their challenges on their own. The time you saved by giving a ready-made solution is time not spent on learning from this challenge.

Moreover, there is a subtle message that you are implicitly sending: “I got the answers, not you.”

Also, in the long run, it leads to developing dependency. If you provide your advice each time people come to you, what’s the point of looking for their own solutions? They will depend on yours.

That’s the dilemma between giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish.

3. Even well-intended, extraneous advice may be met with more resistance.

People tend to take responsibility and ownership for their own ideas. Not ideas you give to them.

So don’t be surprised if your advice is met with a feigned “Thank you” and never used afterward.

So how would you work around these downsides?

With the opposite of the directive approach, the coaching approach. In it, we help the other person chose their own way. We do not direct their actions.

Also, by guiding them to their own solutions, we encourage their growth in the long-term.

The directive approach is intuitive and for most of us, it is a default modus operandi. Coaching… is not. I’ve seen many leaders who cannot suspend the adviser role even when they had decided not to offer advice.

How do we go about this non-directive alternative then?

I usually half-jokingly say that the easiest way to start coaching consists of two steps. The first is to shut up whenever you want to tell other person what to do. Then, ask: “What do you think?”

So the first, and most important, step is to withhold your opinions, interpretations, and advice. Listen with what is called the beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism.

As you listen don’t to find weak points or to gather information for yourself. Listen with the aim of helping Lisa understand a situation better and finding her own solution. That involves asking her open questions about things she hasn’t considered yet:

— What makes that a problem for you?
— What would be an ideal solution for you?
— What prevents you from achieving that?
— What do you need to do to solve this problem?
— What kind of relationships do you want to have with these people?

By asking questions like this, you will help the person who has the most knowledge about the situation, Lisa, to develop her own solution. And she will be more willing to act on it and take ownership of it.

Most people believe that to help others, they need to give advice which is, basically, thinking for the other person. We help like that, other people like that — that’s what people do.

But there is a different way to help others: by helping them think on their own. Having this technique in your toolbox will greatly increase the chances of being really helpful to others. Give it a try, the next time somebody comes to you with a problem!


*Lisa, of course, is not a real person but a composite character of a few clients I’ve had. And the difficulties described here are typical for beginning managers.


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