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Directions or Options

An incident in the car this weekend made me think a bit about the impact our choices to empower or direct our contributors. I thought about how we decide, or should decide, to empower or direct, and what the outcomes may be if we choose poorly. And it all started with a conversation that went something like this:

Me: (Driving) Where to?

Her: We can go to [A] or [B] if you want, or maybe [C] or [D]…

Me: So, where are we going?

Her: Well, there’s [A] or [B], or [C] or [D] – or [E]…

Me: How about a destination?

Her: If any of those options don’t work, then we have [F], [G], or we could go over to [H]…

Me: How about “North” or “South,” “Left” or “Right” to start.

Her: That depends on where you want to go…

Me: …

To many, this exchange is just a basic and possibly all-too-familiar discussion about where to go eat, but the apparent indecision is really only a symptom of the underlying conflict of priorities. True, we could have nailed-down a destination before we left, but the normally adequate, “I’ll drive, so you decide…” approach failed me this day.

You see, while we were both hungry and are heading to get something to eat – that is, our goal is the same – our roles and responsibilities were very different. For her, the emphasis is on being the supporting partner who is flexible with how we achieve our shared goal. In her mind, providing the maximum number of agreeable options without making the final decision is the best way she can meet the obligations of her role.

I, on the other hand, am driving the car with the high cognitive load imposed by holiday weekend traffic along wet and only somewhat maintained roads. I share the goal of locating acceptable food, but I have an overriding priority to get us to our undecided destination alive. I also recognize that the additional cognitive load put in place by trying to decide among myriad options for food will not improve the odds of arriving safely.

So, you see the conflict, but keep in mind that it isn’t that unusual in the workplace. In the empowerment movement, leaders often forget to analyze cognitive loading and the value of getting everyone moving along the same path. Sometimes it is counterproductive to provide a general direction (e.g. get some food), and then to allow broad and free ranging discussion about the specifics of destination and methods; the necessities of day-to-day operations and executing the plan consume resources needed in the deliberation.

Directions are valuable when speed and synchronization of effort are critical. When everyone has to move the same direction at the same time, and when minimal disruption of ongoing operations is important it is time to Field Commander (or drum major). If time and resources are in abundance, and when it is possible to disrupt or parallel ongoing operations, then providing options for destination and execution are good because they can foster a number of engagement and buy-in parameters that can make the changes more effective.

Before providing general direction and allowing a bunch of discussion about how and what to do, make sure that you aren’t trying to conduct the discussion with a staff who is already near the edge of their capacities just trying to keep the car on the road. Knowing which course to pursue depends greatly on what you are trying to accomplish.

For us, we had a lovely late lunch and caught a good movie, but only after we ceased operations (i.e. parked the car) and then discussed the options available in order to decide which best reinforced our shared goals.


About the Author:

Dr. Philip D. Mann is an experienced trainer, speaker, and problem solver who gets things done. His primary expertise is employee engagement and the people side of how organizations grow and (resist) change. He also knows a thing or two about the government works, and those principles apply to all large, bureaucratic structures. If you need help getting things done, reach out to Dr. Mann here on LinkedIn or at

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