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Ask Do not Tell
Secrets of Human-Capital Management
David Creelman

Organizations are always trying out programs to get more productivity out of employees. These programs, whether they be Six Sigma or Customer Focus or Living our Values, often don't work out. When they don't succeed management usually concludes the program wasn't right for them and looks for a different one. Peter Hunter, author of Breaking the Mould, has a different idea: he thinks that what is wrong is not the specific program but that all the programs try to tell the employee what to do. Hunter thinks telling people what to do is a bad idea. If we shift from telling to asking, Hunter thinks we are on the road to success.

Hunter's premise is consistent with the ideas in Edgar Schein's outstanding book Helping. “Helpful” advice is rarely accepted when it has not been asked for. Just imagine you are in the grocery store and pick up a box of cereal when someone says “Don't buy that, this brand is cheaper and better.” They may be right, but you probably won't particularly appreciate the advice. People resist being told what to do. The key to helping is to listen to people and provide them with the help they want, in the way they want.

You might refuse to buy the cereal but employees won't refuse to do what a manager tells them to do. Yet their acquiescence disguises a problem; there will still be the very human feeling of resentment that undermines engagement.

Engagement and Know How

It's often been noted that people join organizations full of enthusiasm and it is only after they have been there a while that they become disengaged. Hunter argues that workers are naturally highly engaged, they want to do a good job and they want to be proud of their results. So we don't have to do anything to create a highly enthused workforce, we just have to stop doing the things that make them disengaged.

It's great to have enthused employees but is that enough? Aren't managers and consultants the ones with the know-how to improve productivity? Maybe not.

One of the conundrums of management, as articulated by the great Henry Mintzberg, is that as we move higher and higher into management we get more and more distant from the thing we are supposed to be managing. We think our job is to tell people how to do things even though they are the ones with hands on knowledge of how things are working, not us. Workers are not only naturally enthused, they are naturally knowledgeable - surely we can work with that.

Improving Productivity

Hunter's approach is to ask employees for ideas on how they can be more productive. Now, suggestion systems are not new and usually they don't work very well. They don't work because suggestions end up in a big pile somewhere and are mostly ignored. Pretty soon employees learn that management doesn't really want their ideas.

There are two techniques that are essential to make suggestion systems work. First is that it's no good just asking employees for any sort of suggestions. If employees are suggesting to change the logo or move the head office to Brazil then that is just the employees telling someone else what to do (not a good idea) in an area they probably don't have expertise in (also not a good idea). The thing to do is ask for suggestions about how they can do their own work better. You may have read about successful Kaizen programs where 10 or more suggestions per employee are implemented every year. That sounds like an impossibly high number of implemented suggestions but it works because the suggestions are things the employee can do themselves with just a little support from their supervisor. Don't just ask for suggestions; ask for suggestions about the employee's own work.

The second technique Hunter recommends is that management must quickly respond to every suggestion with a “Yes” or a “No because....”. Fans of GE's management style will recognize a similarity to GE's famous Workout sessions. The key is that suggestions are listened to and responded to and this keeps the ideas flowing.

The wonderful thing is that even when employees don't have any great ideas, productivity will still improve with this kind of approach. By asking employees what to do instead of telling them you drive engagement and that in itself drives productivity.

The Talent at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Why do we have clerks and assemblers and forklift drivers? Is it because we have people who are too dumb to be lawyers or stock brokers or politicians?  Not at all: we need the majority of the population engaged in real work, and many of these people will be just as smart and motivated as those higher up the ladder. Organizations need to tap this energy and know how to improve productivity.

The approach of asking employees rather than telling them isn't the whole solution. Sometimes you do need experts to lead the redesign of processes or introduce new technology. But there is a lot of potential simply by taking advantage of the knowledgeable and keen employees at the bottom of the pyramid.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at




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