When Leaders Should Tell Instead of Show

Telling or showing – which comes more naturally to you? 

In a nutshell from my last newsletter, telling is the mindset of, “I have the answer.” Showing is the mindset of, “You will arrive at your own answer with my guidance.”    Understanding and applying the difference is a leadership skill that can be practiced.  But which to choose?

On the surface, “showing” may seem like a more collaborative and compassionate approach.   We’re encouraged not to make pronouncements but instead to ask questions and seek consensus. It’s a counter response to the “command and control” style of previous generations of leaders.

Yet, in some situations, “telling” is a better  – even kinder – approach.

However, I’ve found that leaders can be uncomfortable with the directness of “telling.”  You don’t want to be a jerk, or a tyrant.  You don’t want to cause conflict or confrontation.  

The problem is that by not being direct, you may actually increase suffering by causing confusion and delaying access to the truth.

Here are some examples:

When someone isn’t doing their job well.

I can hear the groans. No one likes to be in the position of telling someone their work is unacceptable.  But too often I’ve hesitated – and seen others hesitate – to be specific about what’s not working and what change is needed, for fear of how it would be perceived.  

When you already made up your mind.

Have you ever experienced the “fake” ask for input, when you know there’s no real options? Don’t be that person. If you (or someone else) has made a decision, just tell the people impacted. To be sure, you can provide context, explain the why, and solicit questions and feedback, but amongst all of that be sure the decision is stated clearly.

When there is no time.

While there’s a lot of unnecessary urgency in the world, sometimes a delay is unacceptable. The other day, I was docking a boat in a strong current and the course corrections needed to be made more quickly than I could speak.  So I told the others in the boat, “trust me, I’ve got this” and steered the boat in myself.   

To practice: Telling works best when you believe what you are saying and let your conviction show.  Here, feedback from others is super helpful.  If you don’t have a coach yet 😉,  ask a trusted colleague to notice how you speak during a meeting.  In a moment you were trying to make a point, how clear were you?  How easy was it for them to believe that you believed your own words?

Finally, there is also a trust component – trusting your instincts that in this moment, “telling” is what the situation requires, even if it feels uncomfortable.

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