Features February 2019

How to Empower Employees by Telling Them What Not to Do


Written By: Jim Radtke

Leaders caught up in and attempting to streamline the daily grind associated with managing a successful business may take a directive approach to managing their employees. After all, isn’t it easier to state precisely what needs to be done through explicit instruction than to fix mistakes later on?

Perhaps in the short-term, but smart business decisions rarely spring from short-term-only thinking. I would argue that the micromanagement inevitably associated with the directive approach kills employee morale and agency and thereby costs the leaders who utilize it the invaluable  long-term benefit of their employees’ creativity and knowledge.

Modern business leaders succeed by building successful teams with empowered, creative and motivated employees, and creating an environment that fosters such teams requires moving beyond the directive approach.

The concept of Command by Negation – which I learned and utilized during 11 years of active duty military service as an officer and aviator in the Navy prior to joining the Gainesville business community – allows leaders to empower both individuals and teams by tapping into to their experience, knowledge and creativity.

Command by Negation boils down to telling employees what you DON’T want them to do, rather than telling them precisely what you DO want them to do. By defining the strategies or outcomes you do not want, you are opening the field to a wide range of other acceptable solutions, allowing your team to be creative in its approach to addressing challenges.

Furthermore, as the leader, you are sending an implicit message to your employees: that you trust them to have the judgment, skills and knowledge of the bigger picture necessary to develop effective solutions. You are saving time by managing less and leading more, while giving your employees a sense of agency over their own work.

That said, Command by Negation isn’t a magic solution with quick implementation and guaranteed immediate success. It takes practice, trust and effort – especially in the beginning. Prior to assigning a task or problem to their team, the leader needs to create a work environment that allows the Command by Negation method to thrive.

  • First, you, as the leader, need to ensure that your team understands the “big picture” for your business: its goals, challenges, resources, constraints and opportunities. If the whole team knows the destination, everyone pulls in the same direction.
  • Second, prior to delegating each task, you need to think about the “boundary conditions” – those strategies or outcomes that are outside the range of acceptable solutions. You will essentially be telling your team that you will consider or accept any solutions it develops that are within those boundaries.
  • Third, when assigning the task, be prepared to discuss the problem in detail. You should be ready to share previously attempted solutions, resources available, a description of what the solution should not look like (see above) and have the time to discuss ideas with your employees. Time invested in preparing your problem statement sets the foundation for the strongest solution.

The Command by Negation approach obviously places responsibility on the leader; however, it also places responsibility on the employee. The employee needs to be willing to seek guidance when needed, especially when dealing with a wicked problem.

The employee needs the self-awareness and humility to recognize when the problem takes her out of her comfort area and the confidence to seek assistance from coworkers or managers. Obviously, the leader needs to know the employee well enough to know that she will thrive and succeed in this more challenging and more rewarding environment.

Effective use of the Command by Negation method is a learning process for both the leader and their employees. For that reason, I recommend starting small.

For example, your business has an upset customer with a problem that needs to be rectified, and you’ve assigned the challenge to Joe. Take the time to explain the problem to Joe, offering resources and limitations, and, most importantly, describing to him what you don’t want the solution to be.

If Joe knows the company’s goals and attitude towards customer service and understands the resources and limitations you’ve described, you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

You may find that Joe has solved the customer’s problem and, in the process, learned that she loves the theater. Joe consequently sent a card to your customer with tickets to the Hippodrome Theatre with a note of thanks for her patience and loyalty.

Joe has successfully turned that customer from a naysayer into a fan with a novel solution and a personalized gesture. Most importantly, you’ve signaled to Joe that you trust his judgment and skill and have allowed him to employ his own creativity to solve the problem. In short, you’ve empowered Joe and strengthened a member of your team.

And the next time a similar problem arises, Joe will already understand the big picture –including goals, resources and limitations – and he will be ready to quickly and more independently develop a solution.

Command by Negation won’t work in every situation with every employee or team, but if you are willing to invest time in laying the foundation and paying attention to the situations and employees who flourish in this type of environment, you will develop empowered and trusted employees. This team will pull your business toward its goals while allowing you to spend more time with your head above water looking to the future of your business and leading it down a successful path. 

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