Tell Vs. Show…

Every Autumn, I love watching as the leaves form an organic fireworks display in the trees across my neighborhood. Of course, many things that are enjoyable come with a cost. While the leaves are pretty when they are on the trees, they aren’t so pretty when they are brown and dead on my lawn.

I sat on my front porch the other afternoon, and I looked across the street to see my neighbor and his two children raking the leaves into tidy piles. From the porch next door, my neighbor Reid quipped, “I think that’s the only reason he had kids!” Not a bad reason, if you ask me.

It dawned on me that many parents fail to teach their kids how to work. My neighbor was doing things the right way. He was starting to instill a work ethic in his kids while they were young. He made it a normal part of life, just like having dinners together, doing homework, or having a family movie night. And he was working alongside of his children, showing them his expectations, and making an afternoon of the chore. As far as I could tell, the kids seemed to be having fun. There was no yelling or threatening that I could hear. And when they were done, all three took turns jumping into the pile of leaves.

It’s a lot easier to Tell instead of Show. Show is active. Show gets you personally involved. Show is hands-on. Show engages others. Tell is an instruction, an expectation. Tell is “Do as I say, not as I do.” Tell is a lazy substitute for action.

Managers could learn something from this simple example. It’s not enough to tell employees what to do. Words, as every parent knows, have different meanings to different people. For example, whose definition is correct when a parent says, “I want to see this room cleaned from top to bottom”? If you go by the child’s definition, he might straighten up the area between the rows of corn that grow on his bedroom floor. That’s a far cry from clean!

If you manage people, have you shown them how to do their jobs? Have you modeled for your employees the process and the end results? Have you demonstrated that you are not above working alongside them? Have you provided sufficient encouragement for them to stay on task until they finish the job successfully? Do you find a way to make the work “fun”, or at least as fun as possible? And finally, do you celebrate success when the job is done well?

Every good boss I’ve ever had set clear expectations. Every great leader I’ve ever served showed me how to do the job by working with me like a coach, analyzing key components and providing feedback and encouragement along the way. They also knew how to celebrate success, and they said “Thank you” instead of “Isn’t that why I pay you?”

Tell or show? What kind of parent are you? What kind of boss are you?

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