We all have work we want other people to do. We can ask or we can plead. But there’s a way that sounds great but almost always backfires.
It might seem like the best way to ensure someone else gets something done is to put the work on their calendar. If you work in a modern organization with shared calendar software, of if you just have colleagues that come into an office, this sounds like a viable approach.
“I know we need to work on the Michaelson account,” you might say. “Can we set aside time Wednesday at 3PM for an hour to focus on this work?”
If you’re making a checklist for goal accomplishment, this one hits all the boxes. It’s a specific request with measurable outcomes. It’s something the other person can easily act on, and it’s relevant to their job responsibilities. And because it’s just an hour, they can definitely do it.
But there’s a giant problem.
Spot it yet? Professionals want to feel autonomous. They want some measure of control. If you tell them when to work and what to do, you kill one of the few remaining elements of freedom in their day.
A Watched Employee Rarely Excels
The balance between specificity and innovation ought to be well-known by now. If you require everyone to answer the phone the same way and use the same scripts, you’re going to get consistent results but you’ll rarely experience the creativity and opportunity that arises from doing something new.
Too many managers get obsessed with requiring their employees to do something in such an exact way that any faint glimmer of individuality is crushed. When you tell your team “we’re going to work on this project at this time and place” when they could perfectly well manage their own time, they are likely to want to do the opposite.
Is the answer freedom everywhere? Not necessarily. It’s good to let people express themselves. But if you’re running a police department, it’s an awfully good idea to have everyone wear the same uniform. Otherwise, how would the public know who is an officer and who is a civilian?
But at the same time, rule following for its own sake is a terrible practice. If all we do is check boxes, we aren’t ever deciding what boxes to create. And worse, we aren’t ever wondering if the boxes we just checked should be there in the first place.
Why Humans Are Great
This post is going online and may one day be read by our robot overlords. But in the meantime let’s remember why we hire human beings to do work. It’s only for two reasons:
- We have work to do that we don’t know how to do by machine
- We have work to do that we want to be done by creative, passionate experts
It’s true that many of the jobs of yesteryear fall into the first category. We press our own elevator buttons, we pump our own gas, we dial our own phone numbers—or we tell Siri to dial them for us. And it’s also true that tons of the work we do today will be automated in the years to come.
That’s why now is the time to embrace the humans in your company. Don’t minimize their humanity by telling them when to work and what to work on. Give them as much freedom as you can.
Because what you’re doing when you ask for results without specifying requirements is showing you trust others.
Trust means respect. Respect is what humans want.
Do something bold: try not controlling other people’s time.