A reader writes:
I was introduced to the saying “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” when I worked in my first professional office position. I have heard it many more times since leaving that job, and it seems to be a commonly accepted working mindset. However, I have never really related to this saying and it has never set well with me.
I can’t help wondering if this reflects poorly on me, either because coworkers see me as naive, or because managers assume that I don’t take initiative or risks. Do you have any thoughts or feedback about this topic?
It depends on what’s at stake, and also on what your job is. If you’re in a mid-level or senior job, you’re expected to exercise independent judgment and make your own decisions a lot more than in junior-level jobs — and doing that well is often part of what you’re evaluated on.
Generally speaking, though, if something is a major decision with high stakes, most managers want to be in the loop. But if it’s fairly minor — the kind of decisions that come up a lot in the regular course of doing business — then in most jobs it generally makes sense to make an informed decision with your own judgment.
There’s a middle ground between these two options, too: the email to your manager that says, “Here’s the situation with X. I’m planning to do Y. Please let me know if you’d like me to handle it differently.” And if you’re feeling very uncomfortable with making decisions on your own, this is a good way to start moving in that direction without giving yourself a panic attack.
Obviously, there are some jobs where you’ll know it’s not appropriate to handle things that way — jobs where your manager or the culture or the nature of the work itself has made it clear that making certain decisions on your own won’t fly. As with everything, you want to know your own manager and how she operates. And if you’re not sure, look around you — what are others at levels similar to you doing? You can also ask your manager what kinds of things she wants you to involve her in and what kinds of things you should assume you have the authority to move forward on your own.
Overall, as with most cliches, there’s truth in it, but it’s not something that should be applied blindly either.