Stop Giving Your Team Permission

Instead, build an environment that enables real responsibility and growth

Alex Jones
Mar 13, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Effective managers trust their teams, delegating as many decisions as possible to the people closest to the work. This frees us up to spend our energy on shaping the team and addressing critical business challenges. But it isn’t particularly clear how to do this well.

Management books and leadership coaches exhort us to “give people permission to act” or “give people permission to fail.” Those statements sound good, and they’re well-intentioned, but giving permission is not leadership; it’s simply a different way to wield authority while maintaining control.

Passive permission doesn’t drive action

Giving permission isn’t good enough — you must craft an environment in which teams and individuals are fully empowered to act. Or, even better, they’re expected to act.

But what if they make the wrong decision? Yep, that’ll happen. Failure is a real possibility. But then again, making all the right choices doesn’t guarantee success in a competitive environment.

Telling people that they have permission means that they still derive all of their authority from you. They aren’t empowered; they’re merely borrowing your power. And that’s not good enough.

Pro tip: Give people a bit more responsibility than you’re comfortable with. You’ll be pleasantly surprised more often than not.

We as leaders are accountable for the decisions of our teams. But the people on our teams should have the right to make some of the hard calls, lay out their choices, and defend the paths they choose.

In fact, it should be expected that they make hard calls. They shouldn’t do it in a vacuum (that’s where we come in). But their responsibility includes knowing how and when to use the resources, knowledge, and energy of everyone at hand. But they get to make the call.

It can be scary, especially if you see failure looming, but we should try to step in only if the wrong decision will result in a catastrophic mistake. And the truth is, most wrong choices will never be anywhere close to that point. A bad choice will be a little painful perhaps, but that’s good pain. That’s pain we all learn from.

You aren’t shedding all responsibility

There are times when you do need to clearly communicate that a decision isn’t up to your team to make. After all, you’re in your leadership role because you have the information and experience needed for the really tough calls. Be clear in those cases. Solicit your team’s thoughts and then bring them along for the ride so that they learn why you did what you did.

For example, if you’re hiring a new team member, you as the hiring manager are ultimately accountable for choosing who gets the offer. The interviewing team should provide input and insight into that decision, but they don’t get to make it. You’re on the hook for that one.

It’s important to recognize that there’s a graduated scale of responsibility. An associate designer doesn’t have the experience to make the calls of a senior designer. A developer may not have the knowledge to architect an entirely new system and likely shouldn’t be setting the go-to-market strategy. You need to know your team and set expectations accordingly.

How to craft the right environment

This is where the hard work comes in. To do this right requires that you spend countless hours, days, and months modeling the behavior you want. You have to explicitly create opportunities for success within your team by getting out of the way. Here are some tips:

1. Visibly delegate

The most important decision you can make is to hand responsibility off to people on your team and to build the right environment for that, you need to ensure that your team sees that you trust others.

For instance, if you’re in a planning meeting, explicitly ask a team member to make the call: “Marissa, can you please research that aspect and decide which tool we should adopt?”

2. Clearly communicate your expectations

You can’t just toss a decision to someone on your team; you need to make sure they understand exactly what is needed and by when. They also need to know what resources are available to help.

For example: “Marissa, can you please research that aspect and decide which tool we should adopt by next Friday? Cameron helped us drive adoption for the last platform, so she’d likely have some good insight, and of course, I’m happy to help if needed.”

3. Appreciate the work your team picks up

And don’t just do this in your head. Make sure your team, your colleagues, and your boss know that people on your team are stepping up. This isn’t about praise, though that may be a part of it. Instead, the goals are to elevate the decision-maker in the eyes of the full team.

While it may be in a team meeting, a one-on-one with your boss, or an offhand conversation over lunch, saying something like “Marissa’s taking point on that one, so you should connect with her” may not sound like much, but it communicates a huge amount of trust and respect.

4. Remember that the projects don’t have to be big

It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about what you can and can’t hand off. But here’s the thing: There are a ton of small decisions that others can make, which naturally fall into your lap.

So while you do need to allow your team members to make bigger decisions, providing them the opportunity to make the smaller decisions can go a long way too.

For example: “Morgan, thanks for taking point on unifying our style guide. While you’re pulling it all together, please make a call on the name for this component and let us know what it is.”

5. Acknowledge (maybe even celebrate) lessons learned from failure

The ol’ “give them permission to fail” is not something you can really do. Telling people they have permission can either sound like a trap or like a business platitude you’d see on an inspirational poster in the break room.

Plus, if you have a high performing team (I hope you do!), they likely won’t give themselves permission to fail, much less look to you for it.

Photo: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Unsplash

Instead, we need to model failure as an opportunity to learn and iterate. And transforming failure into opportunity starts with us. As a leader, you need to visibly acknowledge your mistakes and explain what you’ve learned from them.

And you need to do this repeatedly: “Hey everyone, I messed up on that last round of interviews. I made the decision to extend the offer before getting your feedback. Luckily we all agreed, but that was a big miss on my part. Next time I’ll be sure we get together and talk through our candidates.”

The next layer is encouraging your senior team members to do the same, to model the behavior for the rest of the team and show that failure isn’t paired with punishment.

With responsibility comes freedom

Delegating decisions frees you up to work on the bigger picture and solve the more significant challenges, while simultaneously providing opportunities for your team to grow.

And there’s no stronger indication to someone on your team that they’re growing than for you to tell them, “I trust your call on this. Let me know how I can help.”

As a leader, you’re expected to make key decisions. That’s why you have the title and that’s why they give you the paycheck. Some of those decisions come down to trusting your team. You’ll likely be surprised when they make a different call than you would have, only to find that it was better than your take.

Embrace that. It shows tremendous growth for the team and for you as a leader. Over time, you should be helping each person on the team to make better, bigger decisions.

That’s true leadership.

More from Alex

Originally published on my personal site: Leaders, stop giving permission.


Helping designers thrive.

Alex Jones

Written by

Leading at the intersection of strategy & design. Autodidact. Barbecue acolyte. I start fires (the good kind).


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Alex Jones

Written by

Leading at the intersection of strategy & design. Autodidact. Barbecue acolyte. I start fires (the good kind).


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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