Give People the Freedom to Do What You Want

Photo by Lili Kovac on Unsplash

No matter your job or role in life, sometimes you’ll need to get others to do what you want.

To simplify things a bit, you have two ways of doing this:

  1. Force them to do it
  2. Have them want to do it

Simply telling people what you need them to do may seem like the straightforward approach, but this is the Chinese finger trap of human relationships. No one wants to be told what to do. Most people resent it and may exert many times the amount of energy rejecting the idea than it would’ve taken them to honor your request.

In large companies, you often see people appearing to comply with requests they are actively seeking to ignore.

So unless you have a great deal of power, #1 isn’t a great option. Even when you have such power, the idea that you can force people to do what you want them to do can be an illusion. Making people comply with a request can be a pale shadow of bringing out that same person’s best work.

But going in the opposite direction can work magic. Let’s start with an example even an eight-year-old can understand:

My daughter hated getting ready to go to school in the morning; her plan was always to stay in her pajamas and watch TV. Simply telling her what needed to be done provoked an outright refusal.

But when I told her, “You’re the boss of getting ready,” a magical change occurred. I gave her a timer and told her that it was up to her to have everything she needed ready when it was time to go out the door. As soon as she was ready, she could watch TV for as much time as she had left. After that she began coming to me and saying, “Dad, it’s time to go!”

Things are much different with co-workers, of course. You don’t have the advantage of being able to ration TV time or — when all else fails — to tuck them under an arm and carry them where they need to go. But a subtle variation of this technique can be every bit as effective.

For example, in my design work, one challenge I’ve had is introducing researchers to the idea of conducting a particular kind of study they hadn’t used before. When I first brought this up, they immediately began explaining all the reasons it wouldn’t work and made every effort to de-prioritize the work.

Later, when starting a similar project, I took a more empowering approach. I said, “You’re in charge of this. Let’s do it your way,” and I asked how they would go about learning what we needed to know. They came back with an approach that covered part of the need, and with some collaboration we came up with essentially the technique I’d previously mentioned. Only now the researcher felt ownership over the work and was eager to carry it out.

The next time you have a clear picture of what needs to be done and who needs to do it, try finding a way to empower the person who needs to act. Once people feel respected and empowered, they are much more likely to listen to your suggestions.

One more thing: don’t be surprised when people come up with an even better way to move forward than the one you had in mind. A huge part of empowering others is to be open to the possibility that they can develop original ideas and solutions.