Leaders command people. That’s kind of what a leader is: someone with the authority to direct the actions of others.
But people don’t often appreciate being commanded. When you step into leadership you face this challenge: how do you direct the members of your team without offending them? How do you become a good boss, but not be “bossy”?
It’s worth starting this discussion with the reminder that most of what bosses do isn’t bossing at all. Although a leader can tell people what to do, we should be slow to do so. Most team discussions are dynamic and interactive. They should involve everyone without imposing much hierarchy. As a team we cultivate ideas. We imagine solutions. We consider potential tasks. We settle on a plan. The best work happens when the whole team is involved in understanding the problem, the chosen solution, and each person’s role in making it happen. Then each member has the knowledge and ownership to handle tasks skillfully and with passion. The leader’s primary job is to nurture this discussion, to make sure there is a divergence of options and then a convergence to a solid choice. Often this leadership involves no “bossing” at all.
But sometimes we should and must tell people what to do. Sometimes people need the clarity, the unambiguity of a direct instruction. Sometimes we do assign tasks. “You do this.”
We should rarely say it like that.
Usually there are better ways to give a command, ways that make our purpose clear while honoring and respecting the listener. It is possible to issue a command without it feeling like a command.
Even the word “command” can feel abrasive. But I’m going to use that term in this article. Technically, if you as a person in authority direct someone else to perform a task, you are commanding them.
The question we’ll answer today, then, is: how do you give a command in a way your team members will accept, won’t reject as “bossy,” and might even feel good about?
We’re going to focus on words. When you know you have to give a command (or directive or instruction or assignment), what words should you use?
Body language matters too. Tone of voice matters. The conversation that surrounds the command—what comes before and after—matters a lot. But today let’s dive into the nitty-gritty. What are the best words to use?
Here’s a couple of examples.
“Get this done!” That’s pretty harsh. Maybe sometimes this level of directness is necessary, but it’s no way to win friends or influence people.
“Do you think we could maybe see about possibly…” That’s pretty cagey. You may come across sounding weak, and your directive may get lost.
The English language offers a wealth of options for how to give a command. Let’s look at them and consider which work best in this or that situation and which, if any, are never good for any situation. We’ll consider the example of telling someone to take out the trash—something most of us have been asked or told to do at some point. We’ll consider different ways you might command someone to take out the trash, see how it feels, and consider how clear the command is and how harsh it may feel.
From this menu of command forms you can build your own style of how, when the occasion warrants, you direct members of your team to do things.
A Taxonomy of Commands
“Take out the trash.” The simplest and most direct way to give a command is to use a straightforward imperative verb. “Drive me to the airport.” “Send me the report by the end of the day.” “Turn in your homework.” These are uncomplicated, bald directives that state the intended action plainly and make no bones about who’s the boss and who’s the bossed.
The benefit of using a direct imperative is that your intention is perfectly clear. The listener knows what you want done and who you want to do it. The downside is harshness. Although there are more abrasive ways to give a command (we’ll get to those), the imperative feels pretty in-your-face in most business cultures. Usually (but not always) there’s a better choice.
“Please take out the trash.” The word “please” has an interesting and hard-to-define role in English usage. “Please” breaks down hierarchy and puts you on the same footing as your listener. It reaffirms the listener’s choice in the matter. Between friends, family members, and other peers it’s a crucial word, converting a command into an appeal.
You must judge for yourself what its effect is on the lips of a leader in a business setting. The effect varies widely based on circumstances and persons.
In general it has the advantage of coming across as appealing and polite. It has the disadvantage of not quite making the command definite. “Please” gives the listener an option. Do they really have an option? If the command really is indefinite—if you’re willing for the listener to say “no”—then “please” is just the right word to add. But if the listener is really obligated to obey, “please” might either make everyone feel better by preserving the public honor of the listener—the illusion of choice—or make everyone feel worse by exposing the leader as manipulative.
On balance, when giving your listener a real choice, adding “please” makes your request both clearer and more polite.
And keep “please” in mind while considering the other forms of command in this list. “Please” can be sprinkled into almost statement with similar, polite-ifying effects as the ones we discovered here.
“Maybe take out the trash?” With the addition of one little word—”maybe”—and perhaps an upturned note at the end of the sentence to make it a question, the straightforward imperative becomes a much gentler request. The benefit is that you sound less bossy. The downside is that the command has lost its teeth, and the person you’re speaking to may simply ignore you. Leaders who direct others with “maybe” generally appear weak. You might make it work for your leadership style. Probably not.
“You’d better take out the trash.” Adding “you’d better” to the start of any imperative adds a note of menace, a threat. Whether you say it or not, the phrase “or else…” creeps onto the back of the command.
This is almost never a good move. Tossing a threat, however implied, toward someone you want or need to have a lasting relationship with is always counterproductive. The threat weakens the relationship.
There’s a further problem: the threat actually weakens the command itself. The fact that you have to invoke “you’d better” to get this person to do something shows that you don’t really have the innate authority to compel them to do it. The threat, not your own leadership, holds the power. With a command like this you might get someone to do something once, but your authority over this person—and anyone observing the exchange—now lives on borrowed time.
“You’d better” tends to be the weapon of choice of bullies and demagogues. You’d better avoid it.
“You will take out the trash.” One of the English language’s favorite ways of softening an imperative is to turn it into the future tense.
On the face of it the future tense looks as if it’s expecting us to predict what the listener will do. “I am Carmac the Magnificent and I foresee that you will…take out the trash!” But we know that in fact this is a directive rather than a prediction, yet a slightly softer directive than the bare imperative.
How does it come across to the listener? The answer varies. If you stress the word “will” (or, heaven forbid, transmogrify it to “shall”), the directive is quite harsh and even threatening. But good leaders can say, “You will…” in a calm and inoffensive tone and convey a sense of solidity rather than threat. “What you’re going to do is to get the kitchen cleaned up. After that you’ll take out the trash.” In effect they’re directing: “Get the kitchen cleaned up. After that, take out the trash.” But the future tense with the proper tone comes across a little more gently.
“I want you to take out the trash.” To my ear this is slightly gentler than a stark, “Take out the trash,” but tone of voice can make all the difference.
“I need you to take out the trash.” The differences between these various ways of asking someone to do something may strike you as overly subtle, but often a grain of change can make a heap of difference. The shift here from “want” to “need” makes this command much more forceful, yet without seeming particularly harsh.
“I need you to…” is a very popular way of commanding. Many leaders prefer it over any other form. I’ve even seen it taught in assertiveness training classes.
The reason it works so well is that it makes an appeal to the listener that is very forceful yet neither threatening nor invasive. In essence you’re asking for help: “I have this need, you see? Would you meet my need?” It’s not you that demands so loudly that this person obey your request, it’s your need that makes the demand. “I have this need, and you can help me meet my need by doing this.” The phrase “I need you to” gives the directive a softer, less “bossy” quality than some alternatives.
Yet it is forceful. A listener will find it very difficult to evade this form of command. To do so they must in essence respond with, “No, you don’t need that.” That kind of response takes brass. It means making a higher claim about your needs than you yourself are making. The listener must say, in effect, “You say that you need me to do that, but you’re wrong. What you really need is….” Only a very well-informed and knowledgable—or else stupid and insubordinate—listener will reply like this. Sometimes it is the right reply, and if you as a leader are telling people that you need them to do something, you’d better actually need it. This is a bluff that can be called.
In normal circumstances “I need you to…” is a tried-and-true way of issuing a command that carries great force without seeming excessively harsh, and is therefore quite common.
Harshness: ★★★☆☆ (and yet forceful)
“Would you mind taking out the trash?” Here is one of the most common—and grammatically vexing—of English request forms, but also among the most effective. The fact that the listener must answer with “no” in order to agree to your request never ceases to befuddle.
As with adding “please” to a request, “would you mind” softens by transforming a demand into a plea. It is virtually illegal, culturally speaking, to answer with “yes,” as if you minded (even if you would). Instead the listener is obligated to refuse the request in some more deliberate way: “Well, actually I’m tied up just now” or something similar. Consequently this is one of those magic request forms (like “I need you to…”) that applies more force with less harshness.
“Would you mind” gives a less clear command than the bare imperative in that the user may refuse. The “answer yes by saying no” twisteroo also adds a little mental complication.
“I‘m going to get you to take out the trash.” By prefacing the imperative with several filler words, we dull the edge of the command while keeping the meaning fairly clear (though not as clear as the bare imperative). There’s not much mistaking what is supposed to be done or who is to do it, yet a little wiggle room has been left to the listener. Several of the phrases on this list use this technique: make the command longer to make it less harsh, but also less clear.
Personally I find this phraseology irritating. It can perhaps feel more gentle than a bare imperative but it also sounds more toadying and manipulative. For my own preference, a leader tempted to hedge with “I’m going to get you to…” would do better to skip the rigmarole and just say what they want.
“I’ll let you take out the trash.” Another softening-by-lengthening technique, now with the added twist of implying that the listener wants to do the task. To me it sounds manipulative, but it has the further disadvantage of lost clarity. The listener may reply (mentally or aloud), “You’re letting me? So if I don’t want to, I don’t have to?” The task may not get done, and you as leader won’t have much of an excuse for why you didn’t make your requirement clearer.
“I’d like for the trash to be taken out.” It’s remarkable how often you’ll hear phrases like this in meetings at every level of an organization. A leader knows what they want done and who they want to do it, but by omitting the subject of the command—“you”—they hope to make it less bossy. Indeed, they hope the listener will reply, “Okay, I’ll take out the trash.” Sometimes this works. More often, everyone sits on their hands, waits for the moment to pass, and the command is ambiguously lost as the meeting moves on.
There is a time for leaders to suggest a task and allow followers to volunteer to take it on. But it’s best to make that dance explicit. “Somebody needs to take the trash out. Who’ll do it?” Trying to hedge your command as an invitation for volunteerism is usually just weak and ineffective. If you know that you’re speaking to John, and everyone knows that you’re speaking to John, then speak to John. Don’t imply commands.
“Will you/Would you take out the trash?” On the face of it, it looks as if the English language, by offering this form of request, is inviting the listener to proclaim a prophetic oracle. A cheeky reply would be, “I don’t know whether I’ll take out the trash—am I supposed to be able to see the future?” In reality, of course, the future tense of the verb is a softer way to frame an imperative mood. Phrasing the command in the form of a question softens it further. The question implies—truly or falsely—that the listener has a choice.
This is a good and of course very common way of asking people to do things, quite clear and not terribly harsh. Your parents and teachers probably used it with you. Don’t be too shy about using it with your team.
“Could you/Can you take out the trash?” Likewise, “could you/can you” feels slightly quaint, almost archaic, and holds a note of appeal (as opposed to command) that might work well for your style of leadership. Or not. Something to experiment with?
“Let’s take out the trash.” Another way of softening a command is to put it into the plural first person (“we/us”) instead of the second person (“you”). “Let’s…” is very commonly used by leaders and probably shouldn’t be. It tries to avoid harshness by sacrificing clarity, but usually loses more than it gains. The real subject of the command—you—is hidden, and unless the context has made the subject clear, the command will be lost. When you mean “you,” say “you.”
Still, “Let’s…” has its place in a leader’s toolbox, as for example when the person responsible for the task has already been made explicit and the leader’s significant choice is not who will do it but what they will do. In that case, “Let’s take out the trash” may not be a hedging way of saying “You take out the trash,” but rather, “You’ll take out the trash instead of taking out the recycling.”
“Why don’t we take out the trash?” Again an overused hedge but not without its place. It is extremely soft but also extremely unclear. Are you actually asking someone to do something? In the middle of an exploratory discussion, asking “why don’t we” or “what if” questions is helpful in cultivating new options or narrowing toward a final choice. But as a final choice, “Why don’t we…” is too cautious and vague. Make a clear choice of who is to do what and then tell them clearly to do it.
“Could we take out the trash?” Similar in form and effect to “Why don’t we…?” See the discussion there.
“If you would just take out the trash…” Couches the command in the form of an “if” statement, usually with disastrous results.
Sometimes leaders let the ellipsis dangle, just like that: “If you would just take out the trash…”—followed by an uncomfortable silence in the room. This is bad.
Sometimes they fill the ellipsis with some convenient apodosis: “If you would just take out the trash, we could wash out the bin and maybe it wouldn’t smell so much.” This is equally bad. What little imperative force was implied by the initial “If you would…” becomes lost in the succeeding drivel.
“If you would…” simply fails as a means of commanding (or even asking) someone to do something. It stages a desperate ploy to sound less bossy, but still comes across as bossy, yet in an evasive and pandering manner. Avoid it.
A common variant has “could” in place of “would.” I don’t see a great difference.
If you want to be a good boss without being seen as bossy, mull over this list. Watch how other leaders use phrases like these and what effect they have. Try out new ways of issuing commands, see how they feel to you, see how people respond. The key is to find a way of directing people that suits your personality, your team, and your organization’s culture. Once you settle on a comfortable style and make it consistent, then you’ll be seen as a leader who knows how to get people to do things without coming across as obnoxious.