The distinction between being affirmative or directive

Should you tell a self-organized team what to do or let them do whatever they want? The key is how you talk to them.

Steffan Surdek
August 31, 2020
Affirmative or directive

I work with a lot of leaders in organizations that seem confused about their role. Many of them are not quite sure how to approach their people in this era of self-organized teams.

They hear from their bosses they need to learn to coach their employees and let them decide. When they look at their teams' self-organization is almost a form of self-defence. When they ask for something, they hear "we're a self-organized team — you can't tell us what to do!"

Less mature teams sometimes believe self-organization means they can do whatever they want. They interpret this to mean they can focus on the more interesting things and drop the tedious things. In the context of running a business though, some things need to get done for legitimate reasons.

So what is a manager or a leader supposed to do in such a context? What is your role and how should you interact with them? This article will explore with you a key distinction you should keep in mind: the one between being affirmative and being directive.

What is being affirmative?

You can look at being affirmative as focusing on the business needs when talking to your team. You share the requirements with them and they self-organize to meet them. As a leader, the business need becomes kind of an anchor for you to hold the team accountable for the result.

Imagine for a moment that you want your team to do a daily fifteen-minute meeting to sync up. There are two things embedded in that sentence, the fifteen-minute meeting and the need to sync up. The meeting is a potential solution, but the real need is to find a way for the team to sync up daily.

If you were presenting this to your team, you could talk about:

  • the need to synchronize once a day.
  • the need to know what other people in the team are working on.
  • the need to talk about issues they need help with.
  • the need to handoff work and rebalance the team workload.

How they choose to do this is up to them, but they need to do it. Self-organization works best when there is a clear sandbox for the team to operate in. Part of that sandbox is for leaders to be clear on the needs the team needs to meet.

What is being directive?

Being directive as a leader often means telling people what you want and exactly how you want it done. Notice the change of language here. There is a big difference between what you want and an actual business need.

The challenge with being directive is that it can often create a culture of compliance. People will do exactly what you tell them to do, no more and no less. This way, if something goes wrong, you cannot blame them for it right?

It may seem effective because you feel like you are getting results but it has some hidden costs as well:

  • Your people will not bring their A-game.
  • Your people will not always take initiative.
  • Your people will wait for your approval or your permission.


As a leader, there is a delicate balancing act when you are working with your teams. For your team to learn and embrace self-organization, you need to change how you approach them.

Self-organization is not about letting people make all the decisions. They may not be ready or willing to make some of them yet. You need to help them grow into that. The key to self-organization is having a clear sandbox for your team to work in.

Learning to be more affirmative as a leader can help your team to take more ownership and initiative. It can also help you find your own place as a leader on your team instead of feeling powerless.

How do you lead your team? How could being more affirmative change your relationship with your team?