Why don’t people just do as I say?

Version 2 “If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a thousand times: do NOT leave your damp sports kit on top of the washing machine!”

This happens in business. We seem constantly to be re-issuing and re-inforcing the same set of instructions. When I was running training courses, the hard-working facilitators were on the receiving end of a barrage of (my) instructions:

  • get your expenses in before month end;
  • cancel your hotel room 24hours in advance or we incur the no-show fee;
  • don’t leave brown paper stuck on the wall of the meeting room;
  • leave the stationery box tidy

This constant repetition of instructions is very wearing. I felt as though I was nagging. I felt unheard. These feelings may  well have been accurate.

I’m sure this is a common feeling. Especially if we are managers or administrators, we have to issue instructions. Repeatedly. The people to whom we are repeating the instruction become irritated. And after a while they don’t hear us. They walk away. They don’t do as we say.

So what’s going on here, and how can we do better? Why aren’t people doing as we say?

Here are three reasons:

  • They disagree
  • They forget
  • It’s impossible

1.They disagree. They don’t think following the instruction represents a good course of action or the best use of their time. But they don’t want a stand-up row, so they simply ignore the instruction. So we’ve got to sell the idea to them. This involves listening. Dialogue is helpful. One thing to hear is the answer “no”. See this post, on “hearing no”. If they disagree, they aren’t going to do it, so let’s have the disagreement, and find a better way. See this post on disagreeing well.

2. They forget. Life is busy. They are full of good intentions and then stuff happens and our important instruction drops off the end of their To Do list. This especially happens if the instruction is negative. So instead of telling people what not to do, try telling them what to do:

“Put your damp sports kit INSIDE the washing machine”

Then, at that critical moment, with the damp clothes in their hand, they might, just might, remember what to do with it. It helps to make the instruction specific and visual:

“Take down all the brown paper posters off the wall and make them into a giant heap in the centre of the floor. Leave the walls clean and clear.”

Give a demonstration. Be a role model. Get an acknowledgement. A communication is its response. And, as above, accept and be interested in the answer “no”. It’s useful.

3. It’s impossible. Instructions must be compatible with each other. For all you know, they’ve just been told the exact opposite by someone else. Or by you, six months ago. Or, for reasons you can’t guess at, they can’t do what you ask. “It’s impossible for me to get my expenses in by month end, because I’m travelling on the 31st Jan.” Here’s why “hearing ‘no’ “ is important. Now you can jointly work on the problem.

To be sure that what you ask is possible, it helps to be specific. If I tell someone, “Arrive on time” then they may think “Fine, I’ll get the 08:05 and I’ll be able to walk in the door at 9am”. They will cheerfully walk in to my meeting at 09:10, with the cup of coffee they bought from the vending machine on the ground floor, and feel that they were “on time” because they were “on time into the building”. I meant “on time into the meeting: be in the meeting room with all your papers ready to start the event at 9am.”

“Leave the stationery box tidy”. To some people this meant cramming everything in so that the lid closed. To others it meant stacking the unused pads of paper and post-its into neat rectangular stacks, grouping the pens according to their colour and fastening the bundles with rubber bands, and putting each pair of scissors back into its little pouch. There was a certain amount of discord until, by consensus and dialogue, common understanding could be reached about what “tidy” meant.

People want to do a good job. Following instructions accurately is part of what it means to do a good job. So those instructions must be agreed, clear, and possible.

If people aren’t following the instructions, it may well be that there is something wrong with the instructions, not something wrong with the people.

Categories: Business Life, Conversations which work

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