It’s Better to Not Need to Ask


(This is the fourth in a series of five posts on trite sayings leaders should abandon. Here are links to the first, second, third and final posts).

Of the five trite sayings leaders need to abandon, this is the one I didn’t want to let go. But, like my beloved Palm Pilot and Commodore 64, it’s long past relevant or useful.

The saying?

“It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

This leadership saying made a lot of sense when it became popular some 25 years ago.

The pivotal issue was decision-making. Organizations were stiff hierarchies. Departments were concrete reinforced silos. There were multiple levels of approval required for decisions.

It was also broadly assumed leaders in positions of authority knew what was best for their organizations. Executives knew better than middle managers or the sales force. In churches, life-long members knew better than younger members or pastors what was best for their church.

Those not in authority started questioning the above assumptions about the same time. I’m convinced this was due to the dawning of the Information Age.

Thanks to corporate intranets and the Internet, suddenly information was available to everyone. During the same time, organizations started to value greater transparency. You no longer needed a corner office to have invaluable information.

Organizations with early-adopter cultures started to empower managers and field workers to make decisions. Companies that doggedly held onto the slow decision-making hierarchies left their managers and field workers frustrated and angry.

There came a point where those same employees had enough; they started making decisions. They could make decisions and face reprimands or unemployment. Or they wait weeks for decisions, let more nimble competition corner the market, and be unemployed all the same.

In other words, they started thinking it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

As I intimated earlier, I used this justification a great deal when it came into vogue. I wasn’t alone. Here’s what we learned:

  • The practice had a shelf life. If you acted on that saying too often, you really did end up unemployed.
  • The practice came at a high price. The greatest cost was a loss of trust. Even when the decision worked out, there was a negative consequence.
  • The practice hurt communication. Shockingly enough, there was more to the old hierarchies than control. The structure also helped communication.
  • Your perception of the saying changed if your role changed. As a church member, I was energized by the saying. Got an outreach idea? Run with it! As a senior pastor, I wasn’t so thrilled.
  • The saying created a sense of arrogance. Quoting the saying gave the impression you thought you were more knowledgeable and qualified than others.

Even though hearing the saying still gives me a spark, it’s time to ax it.

The price for using the saying is too high. Today you can’t afford to lose trust with anyone in your organization.

It turns out the free flow of information goes both ways. Before, management could say the executives were withholding information. Given all the ways to communicate, today executives could just as well say management is withholding information.

Most importantly, using this saying is a way enabling an antiquated system. Instead of asking for forgiveness, you should work to change your organization. Your organization should be structured so decisions are pushed out to the field as much as possible.

Churches are among the last to structure for quick and sound decision-making. But it’s happening. I spent this weekend training a congregation in how to work together in policy-based governance. Decision-making is being pushed out to the members. The boundaries for the decisions are set by a governing board. Decisions that took weeks or months are now made in minutes.

I’m about to lead a similar with a church that has more traditional system of governance. We can make the council-based system more streamlined as well.

There is no need for permission or forgiveness for this decision. Stop the practice and quit using the saying.

What additional trite sayings are driving you crazy? Share them in the comments or via email. Here are the other saying we need to abandon:


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