live person rule

How the ‘live person’ rule can make you a better manager

If you’re looking for something you can action today that’ll make you a better manager, the ‘live person’ rule is gonna be your new best friend. It’s a concept that many therapists use as a guiding principle and it’s a lot easier to implement than you may think.

Grab out a pen and paper and get ready for your mind to be blown. This simple change in language will improve your communication skills and help to decrease undesired behaviours within your teams.

Let’s get straight to it.


What is the ‘live person’ rule?

Not to be confused with The Walking Dead, this rule has nothing to do with zombies and everything to do with requests we make of the people we lead.

In its simplest form, the ‘live person’ rule means that you should never ask someone to do something that a dead person or inanimate object could do.

For example, you could say to a team member, ‘Don’t walk out the door’, and they could achieve the task by simply doing nothing. In fact, a glass on the table could also get the job done simply by being there – as could a pen or a bunch of fake flowers.

Instead of saying ‘Don’t walk out the door’ your request might be ‘Stay in the room so that we can continue this conversation’. Participating in a conversation is not something a glass of water can do, it’s something that only a live person can do.


Why does the ‘live person’ rule matter?

To create behaviour-change within your team and organisation, you need to have people doing stuff rather than being passive and not doing stuff.

By using this rule you’ll actually remove any room for assumptions as to why you want someone to do something.

Let’s take that ‘Don’t walk out of the door’ request – if you said that to one of your team members, do you think they’d immediately know why you are asking them to do that? They might guess it right, but it is also likely that they’ll interpret your request in a way that’s different than intended.

The aim here is to be mindful of the language you use during key conversations. Focus on giving tasks in a way that a live person could complete the request.


The ‘live person’ rule in the workplace.


Dead person instruction + live person re-phrasing:

Don’t come in late for work / Please be at work on time for a 9am start

I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but… / Let’s make sure we’re both on the same page…

Don’t come to these meetings without contributing / It is important that you contribute to these meetings

Don’t do it that way / By following the process for this task, you’ll be able to get it done a lot quicker

Don’t walk out the door / Stay in the meeting until we’ve covered everything

If you want to become a better manager, you’ve got to work on your communication skills. Small adjustments like the ‘live person’ rule will allow you to facilitate transformation within your teams and potentially, throughout your entire organisation.


Take the ‘live person’ challenge.

Think you’re finished with this topic? The fun doesn’t end here. I’m going to challenge you to pay attention to the conversations you hear in the office around you and listen for how often people make requests that an inanimate object could carry out. The results may surprise you.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the science of human behaviour as well as advanced communication techniques that’ll make you a better manager, take a look at our Dealing with the Tough Stuff program.