A Question Isn’t Always a Question When You’re the Leader

by Don Smith

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I was talking with a new manager (let's call her Sue) the other day who couldn't understand why one of the people she was in charge of was upset. An employee (let's call her Jean) had come to her saying there was a task she didn't want to do. Knowing that Jean had a lot on her plate and probably didn't have time to do it anyway, Sue said, “Ok.”

Later in the day, she asked another employee (let's call him Jeff)“Would you mind taking care of this?”

Jeff looked at her a little funny but said, “Sure, no problem,” and took care of it.

Why is He Annoyed?

The next day, Sue noticed that Jeff seemed annoyed at her. She asked him about it, and he explained that he was annoyed because she asked him to do the task just because Jean didn't want to. “I felt like that was inappropriate.”

She hadn't realized that Jeff had even overheard that conversation but explained that Jean had a lot on her plate, which is why she agreed to have someone else handle it. Seeming somewhat satisfied with the explanation, Jeff nodded and said, “Ok.”

Feeling the need to justify herself further, Sue continued, “I'm not sure why you're even upset. I asked you if you would mind doing it, it wasn't like I was ordering you to.”

Jeff rolled his eyes, said, “Ok,” this time in a somewhat sarcastic tone, and left.

When I talked to her, Sue still didn't get it. “I asked him if he would mind doing it, I didn't order him to do it. If he didn't want to, then he should have said he didn't want to do it!”

I took a deep breath and started in. “If your boss came to you and asked if you would mind doing something, would you tell her no?”

The second she put herself in Jeff's position, the light bulb went on. Sue realized that she had virtually given an order by asking that question and that most good employees would not say no.

Few People Will Say No to Their Boss

She was justified in asking Jeff to do the task if she knew Jean didn't have time to do it, but she insulted him by saying that he should have refused to do it if he didn't want to. Jeff rolled his eyes because, in his mind, refusing the boss's request wasn't an option, she didn't get it, and he didn't want to have to spell it out for her.

Authority Changes Things

Situations like these come from a fairly common mistake many new managers make. What was once an innocent question when you were coworkers can be interpreted much differently when there's a power differential. When you are in a position of authority, your relationship with others changes whether you want it to or not.

Most good employees are not going to tell their bosses, “No, I don't want to” when asked to do something.

It's the same reason why asking someone out on a date when you are in a position of authority over them is never a good idea. Even if you expressly tell the other person it won't affect their job if they refuse to do whatever you are asking, most will have in the back of their mind that it might.

In fact, expressly telling them that refusing won't affect their position is likely to backfire. Imagine being asked by your boss, “Would you be interested in going out on a date with me tonight? To be clear, I'm not saying that it would cost you your job if you don't.” Most people would think that's a threat, not a reassurance.

That power differential is why I don't invite employees out to dinner after hours regularly. Most will feel obligated to join even though they may not want to, and I've heard people complaining about stuff like that when it takes away from other things they want to do.

It's also why most people don't ask their boss to come party with them on Friday night. Once you're a manager, your relationship with those you are managing changes.

Be careful what you ask as a leader, and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Never forget that a question isn't always perceived as a question once you're the boss.

About the Author 

Don Smith

Happily married with five kids, Smith owns a technology company, has served on the board of directors for multiple companies, and loves playing soccer, hiking, and mentoring.

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