"You're Not the Boss of Me!"

Peter Hunter

If we want to get a teenager to clean his or her room, our first instinct is to tell them to do it. They are children, and we are adults. We view it as our function to prepare them for life. Part of that preparation includes telling them what to do—because we know best.

Yet, when a teenager is told to clean his room, how often does he actually do it?

Unless there is a very heavy threat attached, the chance of any teenager actually cleaning his room is practically zero. We know this because we never used to clean our own rooms, and based on empirical evidence, neither do our offspring.

Why, when we are faced with overwhelming data demonstrating the utter futility of telling our teenagers to clean their rooms, do we still persist in creating pointless conflict by telling them to do things that we know they will never do?

At least we are right about one thing telling teenagers what to do does prepare them for life because when they find a job, they will discover that their managers will spend most of their time creating pointless conflict by telling them what to do.

Managers, whether the objects of their own teenagers’ antipathy or not, are unlikely to understand that what makes a teenager resist taking directives also holds true for the rest of the population. Managers continue to tell the workforce what to do with the belief that their constant instruction is the sole reason anything gets done at all. They don’t realize that by telling their workforce what to do, the manager causes them to react in exactly the same way that the teenager does when he is told to clean his room.

Telling people what to do actually destroys their ability to do it. People enjoy challenges; we enjoy achieving our goals and being proud of what we have done. What we hate is being told what to do.

So when we are told what to do, we naturally resist. This is not necessarily because we object to what we have been told to do the resistance occurs because we simply object to taking orders.

If management sets a target, it appears to the workforce as an arbitrary statement without any base in reality. In the eyes of the workforce, the target is telling them what management thinks they should be doing. Management is essentially giving the workforce orders on what they should be doing. Because of their desire for control, the workforce reacts by seldom, if ever, achieving the management-set target.

The workers are accustomed to management setting unachievable targets. The management is accustomed to the workforce failing to achieve their targets, never suspecting for a minute that it is management’s own fault for setting the target in the first place.

By setting the target, management can almost guarantee its non-achievement. In fact, they are actually creating the conditions that prevent their workforce from achieving the very tasks that they have instructed.

This may seem to be a Catch 22. How then can we get people to do what we want if we cannot tell them what to do?

Consider the teenager he does not necessarily want to live in unsanitary squalor, but he is forced to do so by continually being told to clean his room. HIs rebellion is the only way he can resist and assert his control by not cleaning his room.

In the same vein, members of the workforce do not want to be perceived as unmotivated failures. This is what their behaviour mirrors, though, when they react to management's attempts to exert control.

The problem is in the act of "telling" people what to do. Resistance is created not by the task they are told to complete, but by the act of being "told."

If instead of telling other people what to do, we listen to what they want. We can then help them to achieve mutual goals. It may not always be exactly what we wanted—but it will be an achievement that everybody can take pride in.

It will be orders of magnitude better than the destructive resistance that is created every time management tries to enforce its own way by telling the workforce what they ought to be doing.