Do you need permission?

Rummaging through some old files, I ran across a report on one of these high-level conferences where outstanding CEOs and others share the secrets of their success. You know the ones I mean — big-name motivational speakers and big-time fees to attend. This one was held in 2001. One of the topics discussed, according to this report, was the "permission statement" — some kind of guide...


Rummaging through some old files, I ran across a report on one of these high-level conferences where outstanding CEOs and others share the secrets of their success. You know the ones I mean — big-name motivational speakers and big-time fees to attend. This one was held in 2001.

One of the topics discussed, according to this report, was the "permission statement" — some kind of guideline that says it's okay for employees to make decisions and take action on their own.

I like the sounds of this, I thought. I like the idea of a policy that encourages initiative and says you're allowed to take a risk once in awhile.

I was also fascinated by the story one CEO told of an employee who started a whole new business involving nearly 400 employees and much begged and borrowed equipment before the CEO knew anything about it. Of course, the story carries a different moral now than it did in 2001, because the CEO was Jeff Skilling, and the company was Enron. Over the next couple of years, it would become evident that Enron was full of people running businesses without permission, much to the detriment of Enron and its employees and stockholders.

Therein, I think, lies the lesson. Any policy, whether restrictive or permissive, can run amok.

When I was in the Navy, we used to say that the primary difference between the Army and the Navy was that in the Army you couldn't do anything unless the regulations said you could; in the Navy, you could do anything unless the regulations said you couldn't. They probably said the same thing vice versa in the Army. In either case, the idea of some permissiveness was looked on as a good thing by the rank and file.

The tricky part of permissiveness is determining just how much oversight is needed, as the Enron experience proves. Anyone who has raised, or is raising, teenagers knows the problem.

Communication is, I think, the key. Even the boss who likes to run a hands-off operation needs to know what's going on. And the need to keep people informed shouldn't be equated with the need to obtain permission. Wise managers, like wise parents, should have a sense about when it's right to let things ride and when it's right to step in. But exercising that judgment requires knowing what's going on. Where's the balance? Here are some thoughts.

You know you're being too restrictive when:

  • Suggestions, proposals, and new ideas are seldom brought to your attention

  • Trivial matters are consistently brought to you for approval

  • Your workers seldom, if ever, disagree with you.

    • You know you're being too permissive when:

      • A large expense or saving that you knew nothing about shows up in your financial report

      • There's a change in performance levels you can't explain

      • You feel like you don't know what's going on.

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