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Don’t follow orders; pause and ask

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Don’t follow orders; pause and ask

Fast. Easy to work with. Get things done.

Yes, the seal of approval for efficient knowledge workers.

But wait.

Knowledge workers are supposed to think too. Plus be agile and flexible.   

The implications? Take time to pause for the cause.

When we’re crazy busy trying to meet or beat a deadline, it often seems appealing to give and follow orders.  It’s easier to lean it and just “do it” rather than step back and question.

Please resist the temptation to follow blindly even—or maybe especially—if you’re supporting a trusted project manager, boss, co-worker or your best friend at work.

Instead take a moment to consider the circumstances and then decide what to do. 

Initially during a pause, you may feel like you’re stopping the clock and being defiant. Or a trouble maker. Or a high-maintenance colleague.

However, if you’re working on a fast-paced project or situation, the chances are high that the orders are based on outdated information. Or, the individual giving the orders is no longer aware of the full scope of the situation.

Over a two-day period earlier this month, the pauses I took were well worth the risk. In all three cases, the orders dealt with communication issues, either with the project team or internal customers, which always have the potential for misinterpretation or poor handoffs.

Here’s what almost happened:

  • Enabling check-the-box completion. Wouldn’t it be nice to release the message we just completed and got approved? Yes, however everyone in Europe would now receive it Friday night around midnight. Better to wait and send Monday morning.
  • Contributing to the “it’s so easy to be green and recycle movement.” Wouldn’t it be helpful to reinforce some key features about a new technology platform by resending the document we reviewed in person with the change agents last week? Yes, however, the document is now inaccurate because several program features were updated over the past couple of days. The recycled document would cause more confusion than clarity.
  • Burying the lead. Wouldn’t it be useful to tack on at the end of the message about the new mobile app that users need to approve requests within 72 hours, including weekends, or otherwise the request gets escalated to their boss? Yes, however, considering that users don’t yet know about the 72-hour requirement, it’s not fair to them to bury it in the message. Instead, it needs to share the spotlight with the new app in the message.

By hitting the pause button though, we were able to reset our actions without doing any damage or annoying anyone.

In situations like these, it’s easier for me in my role as a consultant and coach to pause the action.  First, there’s “clarity of distance” created by my physical distance from the work team, which gives me a different perspective and greater clarity. (For more on this, see 3 ways to be clear in a distance.) Plus, clients expect me to help them do the right things and avoid making mistakes, so I have a duty to think before acting.

So how can you best pause for a good cause, especially if you don’t have much clarity of distance?

Start by asking these three questions after you get a new order:

1. What will the impact be on the recipient of the message or the action? Make sure you’re not inconveniencing the recipient.

2. Has anything on the project or the environment changed that might make this new action inappropriate? Double check to ensure action is still viable.

3. Is there something we should be asking or thinking about that we’re not? Even if you ask this question of yourself, it makes you reflect and consider things in a new way.

Short-order cooks, wait staff and other fast food workers are still expected to follow orders, but the rest of us should think twice before doing so.

After all, as author, speaker and consultant Matthew E. May says, “Mindful thinking is the new competitive edge.”

How well are you pausing and thinking?