Leadership 101: Why teaching is so much better than telling

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR

It’s been my experience that most adults do not like being told what to do. But when it comes to work, what does this mean exactly?

Most everyone has a boss, and generally, most everyone is required to take direction from said boss. Refusing to take direction from a boss is a big no-no. It’s called insubordination, and most places will fire you for it.

So, how do good managers respect their employees’ natural inclination to not want to be told what to do while at the same time fulfilling their managerial duties? Simple. They cause others to willingly follow by providing sound leadership. And some of the best leaders I’ve ever known were natural teachers.

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They explained, maybe they even demonstrated, and then they moved aside so that their students/employees could learn. Yet, the managers were always available to offer mentoring, coaching, and a dose of wisdom. That’s why I say good managers teach instead of tell.

Teaching vs telling: What’s the difference?

Oh boy, if ever you’ve had the stuffing micromanaged out of you, you already know the answer to this question! But it comes down to this — Good managers/Teachers provide enough information to let the employee/student find his or her own way, and then they get out of the way.

Here’s an example of what a Teacher doesn’t do:

Teller: Charlie, I need you to put together an employee turnover report for the next Board meeting.
Employee: Okay, boss.

Teller: Be sure and use data through the end of last quarter.
Employee: Okay.

Teller: And don’t forget to call Melissa in payroll to double check that all the terminations in the report are correctly classified as voluntary or involuntary.
Employee: Of course.

Teller: I’m thinking the report should have like, five columns. Last name, first name, termination date, termination reason, and eligibility for rehire—yes or no.
Employee: Uh huh.

… and on and on, until the Teller runs out of steam.

Now here’s how that same conversation could have gone with a Teacher.

Teacher: Charlie, I need you to put together an employee turnover report for the next Board meeting.
Employee: Okay, boss. How soon do you need it?

Teacher: Hmmm … I’d like to get the material to the Board by next Tuesday…
Employee: Does this Thursday at noon work then?

Teacher: Yeah, that’ll be great.
Employee: Do you want year-to-date info, or are numbers through the last quarter good enough?

Teacher: Good question. We better do year-to-date, thanks. The Board is super concerned about head count right about now. The more recent the data, the better.
Employee: Alright, you got it.

Teacher: Thanks. And if you have any questions, you know where to find me.

Notice any differences? (I know you did.)

Well, here’s what I noticed.

The second conversation sounded like two adults speaking (as opposed to one adult and one not-quite adult), it took less time, and it was more productive, because both parties contributed.

And that’s the problem with telling, not teaching. Eventually, your employee will decide that the only way to keep the peace is to wait for your instruction on every detail. And that’s bad, because now only one person is thinking instead of two.

Plus—and make no mistake—your employee would rather be thinking. So, he’s probably not engaged and only pretends to care when you’re in his presence. And you can’t blame him either, because why should he frustrate himself by continually offering what you obviously don’t want?

But listen, there’s hope. If you really don’t care to be this kind of manager, you don’t have to be. Practice holding back. Practice a little give and take. Practice making a request and then pausing for your employee to fill in the void with her questions, if she has questions.

Teach, don’t tell. It’s more efficient, it’s more effective, it saves time, and it saves relationships. In another words, it’s good management.

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10 Comments on "Leadership 101: Why teaching is so much better than telling"

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i feel that there is a bit of a miss here. the first communication between a “Teller” and an “Employee” captured the scenario of a typical communication thread between a Teller type of a leader. however, in your second communication example between a “Teacher” and the “Employee”, it appears as if the Employee is actually the one teaching the Leader. It is the employee that is prodding the leader to provide more information from the leader and the leader is merely responding to the questions, and thus, “teaching” the leader to provide more information. The topic of this article is… Read more »
Ant Williams

I agree with Aria,

Whilst the topic is spot on, the second example exhibits a number of assumptions.  Particularly that the employee ‘knows’ enough about what is required such that they preemptively ask detailed questions without the teacher having to prompt them.

In my opinion the teacher needed to present more detailed output (requirement) information, but refrain from telling the employee how.  Typically “you tell me what you want, I’ll tell you how I’ll do it”.


In the second conversation the employee is working more like a team. The employee is asking questions to make sure that the boss has some input also, to create a win-win situation. In the first situation the employee did not involve the boss at all, by asking questions or initiating ideas; therefore, the boss felt as though he/she had to give all the guidance. My point is that it goes both ways. Boss and employee have to show some team work efforts in communication in order to get the best results. 



Wow, these first three comments show that they have no idea how to be a leader. They didn’t get it; and they won’t because their egos are in the way of their success. Keep at it…you may learn by trial and error over the next 30 years.

The article did not follow my expectations when I first read the title. The first conversation did but the second one makes a huge assumption that the Teller is talking to a seasoned, experienced employee. I have neither. What I try to do is either sit down with the employee and show her what I want or give her a sample that is similar in layout so she can follow it. Basically give her enough instruction so they can complete the task. I try to follow up after 30 minutes to make sure they are on the right track. I’m… Read more »
Crystal Spraggins

@Aria. You have a point. In hindsight, the second scenario could contain more evidence of the manager/teacher providing information (other than the information re what’s going on with the Board) about the assignment. That said, the original point stands. Teaching is more productive and respectful than telling.

Crystal Spraggins

@Ann. Your comment is intriguing. Are you talking about a brand new employee? Even the most junior employee eventually needs to function at the independent contributor level, or either the employee isn’t competent or the manager isn’t competent. 

Crystal Spraggins

@Anon. Here again I think I may have dropped the ball on this article (sorry PayScale). In the first scenario, the employee isn’t offering input because it’s clear the manager doesn’t want any. (Or at least, that’s what I meant to convey.)

Crystal Spraggins

@Ant. You’re right, I did assume the employee knows enough. In fact, I ALWAYS assume that a good hire knows enough or at least knows enough to ask what she doesn’t know. That’s my bias, I guess.

Crystal Spraggins

Thanks for the show of support, Alice!