How to Give a Command

A Modern Survival Guide Interlude

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And a lot of people don’t know how to give commands; let’s see if we can fix that.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a situation where someone complained to me “I told them to do it this way, I don’t know why they did it that way!” I’ve been there myself, too. It turns out that giving a command is a lot harder than it might seem, and it’s very, very easy to drop the ball on communicating your needs to another person.

This is a big deal; despite our love of democracy in government, most situations in our work lives are distinctly authoritarian in nature — people do things because their boss tells them to. You will very likely be in a position to give commands at some point in your working life. Getting it right is a major qualifier for advancing to more responsible positions; getting it wrong is a big part of the Peter Principle.

So back up a second — what, exactly, is a command in the first place? Let’s break it down. There are (at least) three parts to a command:

  1. Instruction — you’re trying to tell someone what to do.
  2. Priorities — you’re trying to set the order in which someone does something.
  3. Authority — you should be in a position where you have the power to direct another person’s actions.

If you fail at any one of these points, you are very likely to have your commands ignored or misinterpreted. And each of these points is more nuanced than a lot of people seem to think. Let’s cover them one by one.

Instruction

This is the hardest part of giving a command, because it relies on communication and language. Language is inherently imprecise, and written language is a minefield (just look at the debate over the Oxford Comma!). So whenever giving instructions, you need to make sure you’re being heard correctly. There are a few steps to do this:

Make sure you phrase a command as a command.

Make certain your audience is hearing a command. Not a question, not a suggestion, not an opinion — a command. For example, “Would you mind taking the trash to the dumpster when you have a moment?” is a very different sentence than “Take the trash out to the dumpster right now, please.” One is an ambivalent request; it relies on the employee’s goodwill to get it done in their own time. The other is a directive; it provides a specific goal and timeline, and is phrased as an order.

If you don’t phrase commands as commands, don’t get mad when people think they are requests.

Make sure you speak up, and speak clearly.

I’ve had many bosses who mumbled. Then they’d get mad when people didn’t understand them. If you are in charge of other people, congratulations, you are now required to be a little introspective. Part of that is monitoring your speech and making sure people can hear you. If people can’t hear you, you can’t get upset that they aren’t obeying you.

Avoid passive, questioning, or neutral tones. Be declarative.

There is a Command Tone. It starts high and ends low. It does not start low and end high — that’s a question. It is not listless and slow — that’s passive. It is not monotone — that’s neutral. A command tone would be written in bold letters. A command tone conveys certainty. A command tone makes a listener pay attention. A command tone inspires confidence. A command tone is swift but not frantic, deliberate but not plodding. If you want to give a command, use the command tone.¹

Use the minimum number of words.

Commands are easily lost in circular discussions. I’ve had several bosses who couldn’t understand this, and it cost them. Use the fewest possible words to describe what you need to do, and then stop talking. The more you talk, the muddier your command gets.

Explain yourself to the lowest common denominator.

This can sometimes clash with using fewer words, but you should explain yourself such that the least competent person in the room can understand you. If you don’t know who that is, explain your command as if you were talking to an intern, or a friend who’s in a different industry. Use plain language where possible — avoid technobabble, acronyms, buzzwords, and idioms until you are sure that your group will understand them.

Separate Distinct Commands

If you want people to do several things, separate them out and address them individually. Do not use run-on sentences. Do not link several commands into one sentence. Do not assume that people will pick each one of your commands out of a rambling dissertation. Be specific.

Priorities

The object of most commands is to get something done, and moreover to get it done in a particular priority order. You need to make sure you convey that priority. Again, let’s look at two different statements:

“Would you mind taking the trash to the dumpster when you have a moment?”

Vs.

“Take the trash out to the dumpster right now, please.”

Note the time imperative in each of these statements. The first one is pretty much optional — the employee is technically free to take out the trash whenever they feel like it. The second one is a priority statement — the employee is being told to take out the trash right now.

Never, ever hesitate to set priorities if you are giving commands. And never, ever doubt that the technicalities of your statements will be used by those under your direction. If you tell someone to take out the trash when they have a moment, you can’t get mad if they wait three days to do it. You didn’t give them a strong priority. Never assume that people will adopt your intuitive priorities as their own.

Authority

If you are giving commands, make certain that you have the authority to do so. There are a couple of kinds of authority you need to pay attention to here: personal, and positional.

Personal Authority

Your personal authority is how much you are respected, loved, or feared. Feel free to use whichever of these gets the job done (there is a reason why they have business students read Machiavelli). The advantage of personal authority is that it works on anyone who knows you — you can inspire action and give commands to a wide swathe of people in your organization.

The disadvantage of personal authority is that it relies on your reputation. This means you have to manage your reputation in order to continue to exert personal authority. Sometimes your reputation is not in your control, and as a result personal authority can change rapidly.

Positional Authority

Your positional authority is your formal title, powers, and position in your organization. Positional authority tends to convey force-backed authority — people with positional authority tend to have the right to fire someone who isn’t obeying their commands. This is the advantage of positional authority; it’s much easier technically to give commands if you have some leverage to ensure they are carried out.²

The disadvantage of relying exclusively on positional authority is that you are at the mercy of technicality. If your subordinates don’t respect you, they will follow your commands to the letter — but may not obey their spirit.

Building authority, either personal or positional, usually involves playing office politics. This has a corollary statement: if you want to give effective commands, you need to be aware of your business’s politics. Ideally, you want both personal and positional authority if you want to give effective commands. You want your people to respect and value you enough to not just do what you say, but do what you mean.

Great, now give those commands!

To wrap this up, fundamentally you need to instruct, prioritize, and exert authority to give an effective command. Some people do this instinctively, but for most of us this takes deliberate practice. So get out there, read some management books, and give some commands! But monitor yourself while you do, and if you’re going to be in a command position permanently, I recommend finding a mentor to coach you.

¹There is a persistent argument against the concept of “Command Tone,” which states that different accents can contribute to differences in command tones, and that not acknowledging these accents is discrimination. This is entirely correct, and utterly useless in practice. I’m sorry that people don’t respond well to your Valley Girl accent, and you can change the culture on your own time, but while at work you need to be in charge in the current situation. Use your Command Voice.

²There is a subset of positional authority called “delegated authority.” This is when you have been delegated certain powers by someone with positional authority, and it’s annoying as hell. You need personal authority to succeed in any position where you have been delegated authority by a supervisor; otherwise you’ll end up having to drag people in front of your supervisor so that you can repeat orders in the presence of the real authority.

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