Ask for Advice, Not Permission

One of the most common anti-patterns I see that can create conflict in an otherwise collaborative environment is people asking for permission instead of advice. This is such an insidious practice that it not only sounds reasonable, it actually sounds like the right thing to do: “Hey, I was thinking about doing X, would you be on board with that?”

The problem with permission is that you are implicitly asking someone else to take some responsibility for your decision. You aren’t inviting them to participate in its success — permission is hardly seen as a value adding behavior — but if it goes wrong you might end up involving them in the failure: “Hey, I asked that team and they said it was fine.”

As a consequence, someone being asked for permission will feel a burden to do some diligence and may be resentful of it. That may mean second guessing work that has already been done to ensure they are supportive which is likely a waste of time. In the best case, they will ultimately agree but this process will nonetheless feel disrespectful and appear to demonstrate a lack of trust to the team asking permission. In the worst case, they will decline to give their permission which is not just a matter of rejection but also of loss given all the thought that had already been put into the issue before bringing it to them. Worse still, if your goal is permission you’ll have a strong instinct to present information in a way that favors the outcome you want which can come across as dishonest and further undermine trust. All around, this is a bad situation that breeds antagonism.

Advice, on the other hand, is easy. “Hey, I was thinking about doing X, what advice would you give me on that?” In this instance you are showing a lot of respect to the person you are asking but not saddling them with responsibility because the decision is still on you. Your obvious goal with this approach is to do the best you can, so they are going to trust you aren’t hiding any gritty details and therefore aren’t going to waste time second guessing your premises. They are going to feel comfortable giving you all their honest feedback knowing the responsibility lies with you, and your ego will remain intact because you invited the criticism on yourself directly.

Asking for advice is also a much better way to create advocates for your approach as those who have contributed their ideas will feel some personal ownership over the result much more than if they were just another approval in a long chain. It gives them a personal stake in the resulting success or failure.

The world is full of gatekeepers who think they have veto rights. Don’t believe them. If you need them to invest time or resources then they deserve to have a say, otherwise the responsibility remains with you to decide how to proceed and to suffer the consequences or reap the rewards, as the case may be.

Pitbull got it right: “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice"