columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

When dealing with people who work directly for me, should I ask them to do things or tell them to do things? Does telling someone to do something in a work environment come off as harsh? I always ask them to do things, but I'm starting to feel like asking them kind of makes me look weak.

Green responds:

Either is fine, if you're saying it nicely and not barking orders like you are Caligula.

There's nothing wrong with "Please talk to Bob about the teapot design and see if you can find a solution to the spout issue" as long as you say it politely.

But thinking back over what I tend to use myself, I generally default to framing things as asking -- "Could you do X by the end of the week?" ... "Here's a new project I'm hoping you can take on" ... etc.

And really, in most cases when a work assignment from your manager is framed as a request, it's pretty clear it's a directive. People aren't generally going to reply with "Nope." But I default to requests -- unless there's a reason not to -- because (a) it feels more respectful to me, and (b) it makes it easier for people to speak up when they're worried about their ability to deliver; it invites people to tell you if, for example, there's a deadline conflict or they have concerns about how realistic the request is.

However, there's a third category beyond requests and directives that's important to talk about: things that sound like suggestions. If you say something like, "Feel free to show me that report before you finalize it," a lot of people will hear that as "you can show it to me if you want to, but you don't have to." Then you'll end up getting frustrated that your "suggestion" wasn't followed, and your staff will end up confused about your expectations. So if you definitely want someone to do something, make sure you don't frame it as "you could..." or "feel free to..." or "one idea would be..." or other suggestion formulations.

Perhaps more important than any of this, though, I'm wondering about why you're feeling like framing things as requests is making you look weak. That suggests that you're either feeling insecure about your authority for your own reasons, or your team is unclear on roles and expectations, or something else is going on. I'd explore that piece of it -- because in a healthy, functioning team, a manager's authority won't be compromised by politely asking people to do what needs to be done.

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