Instructing Without Instructions

by Maria Simpson
February 2016

From Maria Simpson's Two-Minute Trainings

Maria Simpson

A colleague called with a dilemma. She was concerned that one of her colleagues, someone quite senior in another part of the organization and not reporting to her, would discuss in very negative terms, a hiring decision made by my colleague and approved by a committee that included this other manager. Essentially, my colleague was concerned that this manager would undermine the decision and the new hire’s authority and expertise by talking negatively about the compensation agreement. Because of the larger context, a reminder not to discuss the decision would have been inappropriate.
 
How do you tell someone (not) to do something when you have no authority over that person? This is a case where your powers of persuasion will be tested. Here’s the plan we developed.
 
First step: Turn every statement into a question, including asking for some help.
 
I suggested that my colleague express her concern that the negative parts of the discussion would “get around” even though the conversation had been confidential and included information on a compensation package. She could also emphasize how important this new hire was to the organization and her concern that the new hire’s professional expertise would be undermined as a result of gossip. These ideas and others could be stated almost like thinking out loud, so they sound more like reminders than warnings. My colleague could then ask what the other manager thought.
 
No matter what the other manager said, my colleague could continue stating her position and rationale in a very low-key approach by saying something like, “After all, compensation packages are confidential and other staff members shouldn’t know about them to begin with let alone discuss the details.”
 
Second step: Ask another question (or two): What do you think? Would that happen? In this way, you are assuming that the other person is aligned with the decision and will support its success. It’s a way of indirectly stating expectations.
 
These questions should not address what this other manager plans to do; that would be in-artful, as they say. Instead, speak as if you know she will do the right thing and promote the expertise and importance of the new hire. You are asking her about other people’s behavior, not hers.
 
Finally, ask another question: Will you let me know if you hear anything negative? In this way, you’re gaining her cooperation.
 
This sounded like a good plan:
 
1. State the concern.
2. State your position, what you want (“I really hope that people won’t . . .”), as reasons for the concern, not as expectations. So far, you are not asking for any action on anyone else’s part.
3. Ask questions. Ask about the other person’s sense of things, what is possible.
4. Restate parts of your position so your expectations are clear. “Stating expectations” is a very declarative process, and the process we discussed was less formal and less directive, since my colleague can’t direct this other person to do anything.
5. Ask for follow-up, especially for information that supports your position – no gossiping – as a way of gaining an ally.
 
Now we’ll see how it works. My colleague is really pretty senior in a national organization, and if she has difficulty with giving instructions to someone who is technically a subordinate but not under her supervision, then we’ll all probably have the same difficulty sometime or other.
 
The key here, I think, is to turn your position into the rationale for your concern, and then ask for cooperation, not compliance, since you have no right to expect compliance. In a mediation we state something we would like to have happen and then lay out our reasons, which can include concerns that need to be addressed and how your plan will address them. In this process, we express the concern first, explain it with our hopes for action, and then ask for support or cooperation, not approval. This process creates allies through persuasion when you have no authority.
 
For a reference, consider Getting It DONE: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge by Fisher and Sharp. It’s a nice book on persuasion and collaboration especially for middle managers and others, like volunteers, who have little authority now but some day would like to have a lot more.

Biography


Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation.

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