Our research shows that giving directives in workplaces is not as straightforward as it might seem. A directive is when one person tries to get another person to do something. People use many different strategies to give directives including:

  • Using the pronoun we instead of you to soften the impact of the directive e.g., 'if we just tell them exactly where it is' rather than 'if you just...'.
  • Using hedged structures to make the statement less strong e.g., 'I wondered if you wouldn't mind spending some of that time in contacting people for their interviews'.
  • Using modals to soften the strength of the directive e.g., 'what we might need to do is send down a confirmation note' rather than just 'send down a confirmation note'.

The type of directive used on any particular occasion depends on a number of contextual factors:

  • The power relationship between the participants. When giving a directive to an equal, workers tend to use more indirect devices. When giving directions to a subordinate, workers are often more direct.
  • People tend to be more polite when talking to someone they have not worked with for long or do not know very well. When talking to someone they get on well with, they can 'get away with' giving more direct directives.
  • People tend to be more direct if the task is very urgent; the urgency 'excuses' the lack of politeness.
  • When a task is difficult, or the person requesting the task to be done knows that it is an unreasonable imposition, people use more indirect methods of giving directives.

Bernadette Vine, LWP Corpus Manager, completed a thesis in 2001 on workplace directives, and her book Getting Things Done at Work was published in 2004.


Please see our list of publications on directives in the Bibliographies section.