How versus what and why

Wouldn’t it be nice to walk around your office and see people working diligently toward the successful completion of a project—without your step-by-step instruction? Most of us feel like we must constantly tell our people how to do things in order to get results. This can be frustrating—not just for you, but also for your employees. Trying to stay involved and connected with your employees can sometimes lead to feeling like you must provide step-by-step guidance in order to get successful results. It may also lead to a sense of disappointment in your employees’ abilities and creativity.

Sparkling toilets

I have a friend with an extremely high standard for clean bathrooms. She wants to be able to see her face shining in the seat of the toilet bowl. When she cleans her bathroom at home she follows a complicated list of steps, performing certain tasks in a certain order. She knows her system produces a sparkly-clean and disinfected bathroom, which makes her very happy.


Recently, she related a story to me about a pretty messy bathroom situation at work. Because bathroom cleaning is so important to her, she accompanied her new professional cleaning-person to the bathroom and told him step-by-step what she thought he needed to do. By the end of her list, the person was infuriated. He turned to her, fuming, and basically told her she could clean the bathroom herself. My friend was stunned. What happened?

As I asked my friend questions about the situation—what she had said and how she had said it—I helped her come to the realization that by listing step-by-step the how of cleaning a bathroom, she had essentially told a valuable staff person she didn’t trust him with his job. And he was, not surprisingly, insulted and resentful.

Picture the outcome

Our job as leaders is to point out what needs to be done and why. We should provide an unerringly clear picture of the desired outcome and then let our employees figure out how to get there on their own. This isn’t easy. It may mean giving up on how we’ve always done something. But the important thing is a satisfactory outcome. By trusting our employees to complete a project satisfactorily, we enforce personal accountability and enable them to take pride in their work. And if they find more efficient, effective, or just plain snappier ways of getting to a satisfactory result, all the better.

Actions you can take today

  1.  Pay attention when you are giving directions. Are you telling people how you want things done or are you sharing with them a precise picture of your desired outcome?
  2. Think ahead to the next encounter when you will need help getting something done. Visualize and then verbalize your desired end result. Be specific about the criteria for a successfully completed project. Check for understanding and provide help only if needed.
  3. Keep practicing and modifying your technique. When you are suddenly surprised by a great outcome and your employees are proud of their contributions, you’ve done it! Review what went right and try to duplicate the process on your next project.
Chris Hutchinson, CEO 

Chris Hutchinson, CEO 


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.