Enough Already! When to Stop Asking and Start Telling

by Alli Polin on January 19, 2016

stop asking permission

We were enjoying our afternoon tea in the hotel business club. The children quietly on their iPads while I browsed the web; a calm end to a hectic day. We were 30 minutes to the cocktail hour and the kids and I debated having a light dinner of canapés instead of hitting a local restaurant. Thoughts of white vs. red began to swirl in my mind. Unfortunately, the decision was not ours.

One of the many women who worked for the club came over to our table and I greeted her with a smile.

“We’re about to start cocktails shortly, and we have a no thong policy after six.”

Crap. I looked at our feet, and all three of us were in our flip flops. I wish I knew about the policy sooner. Too bad.

“Okay. Thanks,” I replied. We still had 15 minutes before we had to get out the door and I turned back to my iPad to finish my article and wrap up.

(The next moment is what took a minor event, and I got truly annoyed.)

Instead of moving on to the next table of thong offenders, she kept standing there and asked, “Is that all right?”

“Sure,” I said, but it wasn’t.

You may be thinking, so what? You were informed you had on the wrong footwear. Suck it up and move along.

When she asked if the policy was all right, what would have happened if I said no? At worst I’d make a scene, at best she’d apologize for the inconvenience; neither response would change the outcome.

Maybe it was her way of saying “leave now.” Still annoying.

It boils down to this: Agreement doesn’t always matter. Wouldn’t it be nice if every inconvenience and letdown could be erased through consensus? That’s simply not reality.

As leaders at work and home, it’s important to recognize the difference between informing and asking. One requires permission and the other removes all choice. Tacking a question on the end of your statement isn’t always necessary and can, in fact, diminish your leadership. Be clear; are you leaving a door open for debate or turning the lock?

Buy-in is something we’ve been trained to seek… As parents, leaders, customer service professionals, etc. While a critical component to employee and customer engagement, when false, it pushes people away instead of bringing them into the fold. It’s called false empowerment and usually leads to conflict despite best intentions.

Hey kids, time for bed. Is that okay?

Yo team, the client needs us to rework our proposal. All right?

If there is no room for disagreement or to wiggle at all, don’t ask, tell. 

Learn to communicate with compassion and respect without a question dangling at the end of your statement. People will still like you. Don’t sweat it.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Blair January 19, 2016 at 8:58 am

Great post Alli, with the perfect example!
The conditioning for “buy in” was useful in dismantling the command/control style of leadership, but as a religion, as you so astutely point out, it does tend to strip leaders of their authority — creating resentment and confusion.
I love the distinction you make in this post.
Is that okay? I hope it’s okay. 😉


Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:02 am


Resentment is spot on! It’s like dangling a carrot that doesn’t exist. Giving away our authority is something that I know you work with people on every day. Here’s to stepping forward!

~ Alli


Jon Mertz January 19, 2016 at 10:23 am


Spot on! If there is no wiggle room, then just say so. Otherwise, creates greater frustration and less engagement. Be clear. Be transparent! Great reminders.



Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:03 am

Big yes to more transparency! When leaders pretend that others can have input or dissent when they cannot, it creates a culture where creativity and integrity suffer.

Thanks, Jon!

~ Alli


John Bennett January 19, 2016 at 10:44 am

The interesting question is why the question was asked. There is a policy in the club – one the lady may or may not have helped decide. I certainly hope the ‘decision group’ didn’t also establish a policy of mandatory consensus by all guests…. Wouldn’t that be a terrible waste of time, creating situations counter to the presumed goals for the club? Consensus is a wonderful goal – when appropriate; as you know, I’m a strong advocate for the late Stephen Covey’s “Third [or Better] Alternative.” But common sense (not always so ‘common’) tells us when consensus is irrelevent or worse…

Great post as usual!!!


Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:06 am

Thanks, John! Great to reflect on Covey’s principle too and when it does and does not apply.

In this case, another thing that was interesting is that she was one of the few people I did not recognize (I was there a lot in recent months). Our exchange was memorable for the wrong reasons! I can respect the policy but clearly my input was not welcome or necessary.

~ Alli


John Thurlbeck January 19, 2016 at 11:31 am

Great post Alli! Super message – why ‘soften’ a command or a tell by inviting a response to a question or an affirmation, especially when there is no wriggle room! I just don’t see why!

Are we beset globally by people who aren’t assertive enough or are just not able to manage conflict? Or is it just societal sloppy habits coming to the fore?
It is maybe a mix, eh? It is also becoming more prevalent in my direct experience.

Thanks for sharing a great story.


Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:08 am

Soften… yes! It takes our leadership and authority and waters it down. I think you really hit it when you recognized her likely discomfort with conflict.

Like you, I do see it more and more. I hope that it’s a trend that soon sees a reversal.

Thanks so much for your comment, John! Value your insights!

~ Alli


Terri Klass January 19, 2016 at 11:49 am

Excellent post, Alli! I am very aware when people use a question when in fact they are just telling me to do something. My take on this is that we all need to be genuine in what we say and that means sometimes leaving no room for comments.
Recently I had this discussion with a healthcare provider who actually wanted me to decide on a course of action when in reality he was pushing me in a certain direction. I wished he had just been honest to begin with.

Thanks Alli and welcome home!


Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:11 am

It can be tough, especially for new leaders, to find the balance between aggressive authority and compassionate authority. I see one as dominating and the other respecting.

The conversation you describe with your healthcare provider would definitely frustrate me too. It’s a time waster and leading someone to where they wanted to go isn’t the same as getting buy-in or letting someone have true input.

Thanks, Terri!

~ Alli


LaRae Quy January 19, 2016 at 8:54 pm

You made a great point, Alli!

I totally agree with those stupid questions that are asked after the speaker has made a statement. It’s fairly obvious that the speaker doesn’t really care what you think anyway—so why not just keep it short and to the point so those of us who are busy can get moving.


Alli Polin January 20, 2016 at 4:11 am

Stupid – exactly. Doesn’t make nice, it turns people off. Sometimes there really is nothing more to add.

~ Alli


Tom Rhodes January 20, 2016 at 8:35 pm


I am a big believer in asking questions. I practice it routinely in my leadership both at work and with my kids. At the same time there are times when it is not about the questions but about getting something done. When the is no grey you may have to tell.

Thanks for the great post.



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