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Home arrow Blog arrow What Or How, Not Both

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What Or How, Not Both Print
Written by Mike Noel   
Monday, 17 March 2008

When I got my first formal job, working in a grocery store after school, I remember hearing the phrase, "tel me what to do or how to do it, not both".  Ever since then that idea has been prominent in all of the workplaces I've been in.  So much so that the idea seems to be a fundamental part of the manager/employee relationship.  I've always thought the statement made sense but now I'm starting to wonder if it's just a subtle form of pride and insubordination. 

Here's why I think the statement makes sense. Telling person what to do but leaving it up to them to figure out the best way to do it seems to bestow on them the responsibility of the end product.  If the result of their work is good then they are praised for it.  If the result of their work is bad then they deal with the complaints and criticisms.  It is a question of ownership.

Telling a person how to do a job takes away the ownership issue because the employee is no longer responsible for his own decision making.  Instead, he is simply following orders.  His role is to follow orders, to the letter, and leave the outcome up to the person giving him orders.  In that case an employee can do a great job by making sure that he follows orders to the best of his ability.  He doesn't need to know why or what he is trying to achieve.

In both of these cases the employee can know what to do and he will know that his "fate" depends entirely on how well he does the task given to him -- either solving a problem or following directions.

The case where an employee is told what to do and how to do it seems to be the worst of both worlds.  On the one hand the manager is making the employee responsible for the outcome (telling them what to do) and on the other the manager is not allowing the employee to figure out how to do it best.   So if the manager's plan for solving the problem doesn't work then the employee is left holding the bag.  

All of that makes sense to me.  But maybe it's just rationalization in support of pride and freedom of will.  Maybe it's the same old thing of not wanting anyone to tell you what to do.  I will have to think about this some more.


Last Updated ( Monday, 17 March 2008 )

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