is it true that you should “ask for forgiveness, not permission”?

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.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily in NYC

    Ha, this is my boss’ favorite saying – but it usually has the context of “can we drink beer at this after-hours meeting” instead of something more nefarious.

  2. Jamie

    For the love of God never apply this maxim to IT. If you don’t have express permission to mess with something then don’t touch it at all.

    Same goes for breaking IT policy or disregarding ISO procedures. If you have an issue with the way something is done I am all ears – we can discuss it. But to disregard it and go your own way on stuff with clearly documented protocols? Forgiveness will be very, very hard to come by.

    That aside – my first few projects with greater responsibility I didn’t know how much authority I had until my boss asked me why I was checking with him on XYZ – just do it. After that I have no problem touching base with my boss if I’m even a little unsure of where my authority ends and where I need to hand it off to another manager and make it their problem.

    I’ve applied this – in a way – on the rare occasion that I’m the ranking manager and something weird hits the fan which is outside of my normal wheelhouse. If I can’t get a hold of the manager who handles problem X I just use my judgment (erring on the side of conservative decisions) and could defend my call if needed later. I’ve never had to defend it though.

    1. khilde

      “That aside – my first few projects with greater responsibility I didn’t know how much authority I had until my boss asked me why I was checking with him on XYZ – just do it. ”

      And this is the tricky part, isn’t it? I remember working for two different commanders in one position in the military. It took me a while to figure out the boundaries, desires, preferences, and threshhold of control my first commander wanted. But I figured it out and knew what he wanted to be informed about and what he didn’t. Then he left and another commander came in. Because my new commander didn’t communicate to me his preferences in a clear way, I just kept doing thing the way I was doing them for commander #1. Only when I did it (the way I was doing it before…or the way I thought it should be done) and was corrected for it did I realize how to operate under my new commander. Both were good guys – just different boundaries.

      So if nothing else, supervisors: communicate early and often to your staff what your boundaries are surrounding authority and decision making. They’re going to keep working for you the same way they have for previous bosses until you tell them otherwise!!

    2. -X-

      Come on. Not all IT is mission-critical. Certainly permission has to be sought in a production or live environment, or in activities under particular legal or other formal controls. But in development and testing things can and often should be much more flexible.

      And IT isn’t just the physical stuff and existing protocols. It can include project management and planning, where the permission/forgiven continuum can vary a lot.

      1. Jamie

        I was speaking for my environment and I should have made that clear – of course others are different.

        But I am talking about inexperienced users in a production environment – and under regulated conditions for which I have to answer when the external auditor comes. So I stand by my statement for myself but I should have said my forgiveness will be very hard to come by.

      2. Anon

        I think Jamie was referring to regular users, not IT staff. IT staff are supposed to have a greater awareness of what they might break by doing things differently.

        1. Jamie

          Yes – I was talking about regular users. IT staff has more leeway because if we break it we fix it. We create our own consequences.

    3. Meg

      This is why I love version control. Oh, you screwed something up and committed it? No problem, we’ll just pull the previous revision. Problem solved.

  3. AP

    These boundaries can be fraught and really depend on you getting to know your manager and company pretty well. Everyone has different lines, although there are some that should be clear going in/

    For example – this drives me nuts – the admin in my office asks for forgiveness after blowing off an afternoon of work when she says she’s going to the store at 2:30 and doesn’t come back, instead of asking for ‘permission’ to take the afternoon off for personal reasons (and she still has a job, SIGH).

    On the other hand, PA’s and interns have been known to ask if they can, like, change the printer paper or dial out on the phone system.

    So those are my two extremes, but everyone is different.

    1. Lily in NYC

      Wow, that admin has a set of brass ones! I would be so consumed with guilt if I did something like that.

  4. Catherine

    I have seen this applied mostly to taking time off for personal/vacation reasons (doing something fun or just taking a break – personal emergencies are excluded). There is usually one or two coworkers at my jobs who will rearrange their schedules or take the afternoon off on a whim, without getting it approved. To my knowledge, they did not have a special arrangement with the boss to do this. Sometimes they will tell me they got in trouble for it, but still think it’s okay to do, or they don’t understand why they got in trouble. Has anyone else encountered this? My thought is you should never just take personal time off on a whim unless that is an arrangement approved by your boss – like you have a very flexible schedule and set your own hours.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, that’s one where it’s not okay to do unless you have an arrangement with your boss ahead of time that it’s fine to do that sort of thing. (Or unless you’re senior enough that you don’t need it approved.)

    2. Jamie

      This was one of those weird areas where I didn’t realize I could do this until I was gently mocked about it.

      I went to my boss to ask him if I could cut out a little early on a Friday (years ago) and having come from a micro-managing boss and still scarred from that I’m explaining that I’ve put in a lot of late nights and had worked the prior weekend and we were having people over so could I leave…blah blah blah.

      His reply? Something to the effect of “What are you asking me for? I don’t even know why you came in today, I don’t set your schedule.”

      Alrighty, then!

      My problem was I have a flexible schedule but that at point I had only flexed it for the company I have never flexed it to benefit me and because of a former boss I was sure I’d need iron clad data to get an okay.

      Small confession – I still feel guilty leaving early no matter how many hours I have in. There have been weeks I’ve done 60 hours before I walk in the door on Friday and I still have to talk myself into cutting out a half hour early and truly – no one else cares.

      I leave earlier now because due to circumstances I’m getting into work at 5:15 am – work till about 2:30 here and then fire up the VPN and work until my usual time. I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I leave the office.

      I don’t know how to reset that part of my brain – because it’s not logical and it irritates me.

      1. Wilton Businessman

        I still feel guilty leaving early no matter how many hours I have in.

        That’s because you are a professional.

        1. twentymilehike

          That’s because you are a professional.

          AMEN.

          (I dream of working with these mythical creatures one day …)

        2. Runon

          I’m going to disagree with this. What is unprofessional about working from home? What is unprofessional about putting in the required amount of time to do the work and then leaving to balance my life so I’m not too stressed out to perform at a peak level next week?

          Seriously if 4 or 4:30 on Friday rolls around and I’m not going to manage to get anything more done why is that a problem? (Assuming you aren’t paid by the hour/need to be at your desk, obv but not all jobs are that kind of job.)

          I know that there are many days I’d be more productive if I could go home where it is quiet and I don’t have people stopping by my desk every 15 minutes completely interrupting my flow and then it takes me 10 to get back into it.

          1. Wilton Businessman

            Um…..What?

            I think the right person can work from home quite well. It’s not everybody, but some can do it.

            1. Runon

              I’m just trying to understand what would be unprofessional? Leaving early when all the work is done? Working from home? Why does guilt make you a professional? I simply don’t understand your comment.

              1. Wilton Businessman

                A professional does more than what is expected. They go above and beyond the ordinary and mediocre to excel.

                A professional respects other members on his/her team. She knows that while she is knocking off 30 minutes early, there are others on the team that are working so she can do that. The professional recognizes her teammates and would do the same for them.

                Hence, my assessment that Jamie is a professional. I would not be surprised to hear “Whatever it takes” come from her mouth on a daily basis.

              2. A.

                I think this is very industry specific. For instance, I work in publishing and I very often have to come in early (and I mean EARLY) to complete a day’s work since there is almost always more work than can be completed in normal work hours. However, even if I came in early enough that my particular work was done by 4:30 (which usually would have required me being there for about 10 hrs already – not unheard of), it would still be frowned upon to just up and leave because things can and will fly at you last second. In this case, leaving because “all [my] work is done” or because I had already put in more than a full day would definitely have the potential to label me unprofessional.

                From what I’ve heard, most other industries probably don’t work like that. But there are probably people in all industries who think similarly.

                Now, if only I could go back a few years and tell my college self that I would be overworked and underpaid in a career that I’ve unnecessarily romanticized… (but that’s obviously another topic!)

                1. The IT Manager

                  It’s industry and job dependent. Obviously Jamie’s job and boss doesn’t require her there during certain set hours, but other people have jobs that don’t lend themselves to a state of “all work complete” or simply need someone there during certain hours to respond to customers (internal or external). Or some bosses and companies simply require their employees put in the minimum 40 hours or whatever just because that’s easier than policing individuals.

                  Jamie’s guilt, while misplaced in her situation, is a sign that she’s not someone who rushes home the first moment she’s allowed to.

          2. twentymilehike

            I totally interpereted Wilton’s comment to mean that the person was congisant of their workplace and colleagues instead of just blindly doing whatever they felt they could do without consideration of the bigger picture.

            A lot of people don’t do that.

        3. BCW

          Yeah, I don’t think that makes you any more professional than anyone else because you feel guilty about leaving early. I leave early a good amount. However no one has ever said anything about my work getting done. I’ll also check emails at night or on weekends. I think some people have a very antiquated view of things that they want asses in the seats from 9-5, whether you need to be there or not. I think thats ridiculous. Now at the same time, if I need to come in early one day or stay late, I’ll do that too. I don’t think sitting at your desk when you have no work to do make you more professional at all.

          1. Wilton Businessman

            I agree with your statement that it doesn’t make you a professional just because you feel guilty about leaving early. And I also agree that just sitting at your desk doing nothing until 5PM rolls around is silly. As a manager, I have issue with you sitting at your desk at any time doing nothing. I can guarantee you that wouldn’t happen in my environment.

            1. BCW

              Here is my point. In my current position I have X number of clients/customers I work with, and a certain amount of tasks per day. Some days I’m slammed with customer issues and other projects from the second I walk in until I leave. Other days, I just don’t have as much to do. Every job isn’t one where there is “always work to be done”. So if someone has finished their work for the day, why do you seem to have a problem if they head out early (assuming they aren’t paid by the hour)

              1. Wilton Businessman

                We will have to agree to disagree. There is always time to build your business and build your own personal brand. Maybe that means reading up on technique XYZ, learning about other aspects of the business, or researching what other organizations do with certain struggles you are having.

        4. Kou

          I like to joke that, for me, that guilt comes from growing up just poor and Southern enough to feel like hard work is the ultimate virtue and personal time is the devil’s work. Only people who also grew up that way seem to find it funny, though.

          1. Jamie

            I’m not southern but I get that. For me it really has nothing to do with professionalism or lack thereof (although that was a very nice thing to read – thanks, WB) but some weird compulsion to follow rules even when I make them myself and no one else cares.

            I’m very routinized.

            I do think I need to work on compartmentalizing work from not-work a little better. As it is now its kind of blurry because yes I check in here a lot from work (which I know looks slacky) but I start my first round of work email at 3:45 AM now and when I’m not at work I’m remoting in until bed, with time off for dinner and showers. So it’s a horrible creep where due to stuff being spread out at work now due to other people’s schedules and availability there isn’t a real clear “I’m not working now” ever…but that doesn’t mean I’m going full speed every waking moment either.

            And someone mentioned people who sit at there desks with nothing to do. I can honestly say I’ve never had a job where being done with everything was possible. Done for the day, sure…but the whole I have nothing to do thing has never been an issue except for a couple of temp jobs back in the day. Watching the clock which I swear moved backwards was a nightmare.

      2. Elizabeth

        I felt guilty coming in this afternoon, after being gone yesterday afternoon, being at work from 11pm to 3am for a planned downtime, and planning to be off all day today. But, I watched my phone burn up its battery with an avalanche of email related to the downtime this morning, and I felt like there were things I needed to do from my desk rather than try to manage them from home.

        I tend to be a perfectionist about the quality of work I do, and my brain isn’t running at full speed right now. I’m also wearing jeans & a company shirt, rather than slacks, jacket & heels, which isn’t how I prefer to dress.

        But, I’m the senior analyst, and there are some things that are simply my responsibility to take care of. So, I’m here, fuzzy brain & all, complete with guilt about violating the dress code & not giving my all for one afternoon.

      3. Elizabeth West

        Ha ha, me too. Whenever I would skip lunch and leave early at OldJob, even if it was for a doc appointment or something, I always felt like I was doing something wrong. Even if I had permission.

        This VPN thing is weirding me out. I’M ON THE COUCH BUT YET I AM WORKING (well not right now; I’m at lunch)! It’s not the same as writing books, because I do that anyway and it’s not actually my paycheck job.

  5. AnotherAlison

    I really only see this in play when action needs to be taken immediately on something that is someone else’s domain, and they are not available. . .like the completely unreachable by any means not available.

    I feel like if you are physically able to ask first, you should. You shouldn’t use that phrase as an excuse to be a cowboy and do things your own way and assume you can smooth it over later.

    1. Julie K

      This is where it comes up for me. If I’m not sure about a decision (usually whether my response to a client’s email is appropriate or when I need to send a mass email), I’ll email my manager to tell her what I’m planning. However, there have been several times at which she was completely unreachable, and an email had to go out (sometimes to thousands of colleagues). My main concern is that there may be political or other issues related to the email’s content that I’m not aware of. Each time I have used my best judgement about what to write and sent the emails, and so far, it’s been OK. I guess I know how my manager likes to do things well enough to take these risks, but sometimes it can be challenging to trust your own judgement, especially when the stakes are high.

  6. T.

    I had an interview question recently that I suppose was trying to get at whether I am an “ask forgiveness, not permission” person or permission first. The hiring manager asked what I would do if another department needed us to sign off on a project immediately while she was unreachable in a meeting. I really struggled with the question because I was interviewing for a junior position and she wouldn’t give me more information about whether this was something I would normally give approval on in the role or if the general process was for the work to get her okay first. I agree that it has a lot to do with how your manager and company culture operates – I’m perfectly fine with working under either mindset, I just need to know what the expectations are!

      1. EG

        I could see asking that question to make sure they asked the right follow up questions and knew that it isn’t necessarily black and white.

    1. -X-

      “I don’t have enough context to answer that question. If you like, I can tell you about some instances where I was faced with that challenge in my current position.”

    2. AnotherAlison

      I think if you ask a lot of questions or don’t give a snap answer to that question, you are probably an ask for permission person : )

    3. KimmieSue

      As a card-carrying, lifelong Recruiter…I agree with Alison…that is a terrible interview question.

      For the record, IMHO, it sounds like you handled it well, asked for clarifying information and responded appropriately. Don’t know how the interviewer would gauge your answer as right or wrong anyway.

  7. Yup

    I’ve heard the expression many times and have mixed feelings about it, too. (I certainly don’t think of it as commonly accepted wisdom.)

    On one hand, it’s important to be results- and action-oriented at work. So to that extent, the idea that you shouldn’t spend years sitting quietly at your desk waiting for permission to do your job, has merit. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be running roughshod over important policies and saying “Oh, I beg your pardon” afterwards like it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Like everything, it’s really about judgment and sound decision-making. There are situations where you just have a make a call and go forward, and there are situations where it’s critical to tick the boxes or get official permission. Knowing the difference seems more important than just applying a broad motto to every situation.

  8. Omne

    I see it somewhat differently. There have been times that ethical dilemmas have cropped up regarding established ( sometimes rigid ) procedures. If I had asked I would have been told to follow the procedures, instead I did what I thought was right and took the heat afterwards. This was more of an issue in junior positions I held.

    Seems to have not been too much of a hindrance for me since I’ve made it to upper management since then.

  9. Tony in PA

    I encountered this from the opposite direction. I used it to try to make an employee more assertive (it didn’t work but that’s another story). I had an employee who would ask permission before she did absolutely anything. She called or stopped in with a “May I…?” question at least four or five times a day (I’m in IT and she was theoretically a senior person). I talked with her on multiple occasions about it. She was paralyzed with the fear that she’d make a “wrong” choice so felt the need to ask me to validate every decision. It was awful.

    1. Wilton Businessman

      I try to foster an environment of having my people learn from their mistakes. If somebody makes a mistake, we fix it, figure out how to prevent it in the future, and move on. My people know they’re not getting fired for screwing up, so they come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. I like to say we take calculated risks.

      In your case, it either sounds like your employee doesn’t want the responsibility of making the choice, doesn’t have the confidence to make a choice, or is afraid they are going to get fired.

      In the first case, she is looking to blame somebody if the decision goes bad. You could explain to her that you are a senior person and that you expect her to make that kind of decision on her own. Lay out your own decision making process given the facts, and help her to learn to choose. Understand though, that some people will never graduate from being “finger pointers” and you might have to make changes to move forward.

      In the second case, she has a lack of confidence. I would try to change the conversation from “May I?” to you being sort of a sounding board. That way she reaches the conclusions on her own (with your help), and builds the confidence that future decisions will be correct as well.

      The last case is more an environmental condition than anything else. How you’ve treated others (or your company has treated others) in the past will influence the attitudes at work. If she is afraid to make a mistake and be fired, you may need to reassure her more frequently than others.

      1. Runon

        I think this is a great response and I really want to highlight the last one. Make sure your environment isn’t coming across as one where there is a high risk for making any error. This might not just be getting fired but demotions, lack of advancement, and taking away responsibilities. If you department doesn’t appear (it can not actually function that way but if the last 3 people who screwed something small up quit on their own weeks later, it is going to appear that you are that kind of environment) that way then you definitely want to address the other issues, and the above great suggestions. But first make sure you aren’t punishing innovation.

    2. kbeers0su

      “I used it to try to make an employee more assertive”

      Ditto. I only did this when I truly trust one of my employees. When I do, I tell them exactly that- I trust their judgment. While they may be nervous about making “big decisions” they also know that I’ll support their decision and back them up if something does go wrong. So far I haven’t shot myself in the foot with this one…so here’s hoping it continues to work!

  10. KayDay

    Oh, I’ve always hated hearing this because (a) it’s just not my personality and (b) I don’t think it’s true all (or even most of ) the time.
    I do hear it a lot, however, so I’m hesitant to say that “my” way is right. Perhaps I am actually asking permission too often. But this is how I interpret it (ymmv):
    –If it has to do with money, always ask for permission, unless you are absolutely sure you should proceed.
    –If it has to do with major external communication, normally for permission if in doubt.
    –If it’s purely internal and easily correctable, just do it (and risk asking for forgiveness).
    Obviously, the higher up you go, the more likely you should be making decisions on your own. But initially, you and your boss need to be on the same page about what falls under your decision making responsibility. So essentially when you start the job, you should be asking for blanket permission to do x, y, and z.

    1. Makes decisions

      I disagree with this. I’m fairly low level, but moving up the ladder. I very rarely, if ever, ask permission about client communications, ordering items, etc. I just think about what my company and managers want and do it without consulting higher-ups. I’ve consistently had decision making pointed out as a strength during reviews, and called out specifically during my promotions as a reason for them. I think asking permission for things can too easily come across as a lack of confidence. To become a person trusted with making the truly major decisions you have to show you can make good smaller ones on your own.

      1. Cassie

        I’m like you. I don’t have anyone working under me, so I wouldn’t consider myself high-level, but I feel I have enough judgement (and my boss trusts me enough) to make decisions on ordering items/catering, or sending out communication to external customers.

        For one of my counterparts, she doesn’t have the same amount of leeway because she has been there for a shorter amount of time than I have and because she has had glimpses of poor judgement on past occasions. Nothing major, but to the point where she does need to get approval before doing certain things.

  11. Wilton Businessman

    Depends on the environment.

    Highly regulated industries require that certain procedures are followed by law. If you break one of those rules to get the job done, you will be fired.

    In other environments, “out of the box” thinking is rewarded.

  12. Malissa

    Asking for forgiveness instead of permission has everything to do with how boundaries are set in an office and your own personal judgement.
    In my world I order supplies and make decisions that technically should be my Boss’s call, but he trusts me to do it. So I’ve just expanded on that to make my job easier.

    1. Alison2

      You are right about this. We should know your company’s boundaries and follow them the best that you can. We have to remember that it’s very likely that when the company has told you not to do something it’s for a very good reason (saving a life notwithstanding)…and if we go ahead without clearance on certain things and then we ask for forgivness instead of permission we’ve already broken trust. Of course, this depends on our level of authority and what it is we’ve actually done and if we have been told not to do it. It is a fine line.

  13. Anon

    I spend a lot of time in the “it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” world. I’m at a senior level, so have a lot of authority in that sense but I use it with my staff. I want them to learn to make their own decisions, within their realm. Do not ask me for every little thing. Even kinda big things. If it’s a mistake, we’ll fix it. And all I ask is that you don’t make the same mistake twice.

    There have been times when I couldn’t get in touch with my AVP to make a call on something but it was time sensitive. So, I did it because it had to be done. It was the right choice. It’s a fine line, true.

  14. BCW

    I definitely believe that. This came up just the other day. I’m in an account management position. For various reasons (restructuring, and my manager being out on maternity leave) I’m currently reporting to the head of marketing, which in itself is not logical. Me and the other person in my role decided we wanted to get some feedback from some of our best customers to improve our processes. I decided to just put together a survey myself and send it out for the feedback. I did this because i know the marketing person would have made things 10x more complicated than they needed to be, when in reality it was just info that I would use to improve how I work with customers. If she finds out later and asks about it, so be it. Otherwise, I don’t see myself having done anything wrong.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I wouldn’t think it would be a problem, seeing as the survey had to do with your process only and not broad customer service or branding. Unless your marketing manager is paranoid or there is specifically some policy there, it should be okay.

      Of course, I don’t know your company. And I’m not Alison, but if I were a boss I would be happy you showed the initiative.

  15. clobbered

    Here’s what I think the saying means: It means that you are *knowingly* doing something you believe you wouldn’t get permission for (or permission would take too long), but you believe so strongly it’s the right thing to do, that you are willing to do it and hope you are forgiven because by then circumstances will have proven you right.

    For example, you drive an old ambulance, and a new one has just arrived but it still doesn’t have insurance/tags/equipment and you have been forbidden to drive it until it does. You get the call that a kid has been hit by a car and is bleeding on the side of the road. You get in the old ambulance and it does not start. At that point you say “better to ask forgiveness than permission”, jump into the new ambulance and go save the kid’s life. You do it *knowing* that if you crashed the ambulance on the way there you would probably be fired, but hoping that you won’t, and saving the kid’s life will mitigate your breaking of the rules.

    Use sparingly, make sure you are making the judgement call for good reasons, and realise that you may, in fact, not be forgiven and should be prepared to live with the consequences.

    1. Kou

      This is how I’ve always understood it as well– it’s for situations where you expressly know you would either have to bargain and argue to get your way (or potentially not get your way at all) if you asked, so you just do what you want anyway and anticipate that getting forgiveness will be easier an trying to convince them in the first place.

    2. Chris80

      This is also how I’ve always understood the saying. I worked in retail for a few years (with a few less-than-stellar managers) and it was always phrased there as “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I always took it to mean that it’s easier do what needs done (and ask forgiveness if you get caught) than to ask permission from an unreasonable manager that is prone to flying off the handle over small issues.

      1. quix

        I’ve always heard as ‘easier’ to.

        Generally I’ve applied it in cases where something needs to be done, but the people in charge of getting it done aren’t motivated and won’t get out of the way. So you do it, get a finger wagged at you, but no real consequences since you accomplished a necessary task.

    3. The IT Manager

      +1 I hadn’t responded to this thread yet, but something about the whole conversation seems a little off.

      I’ve always heard/said it’s easier (or better) to ask for forgiveness than permission, but there’s always the implication that you’re doing something wrong (circumventing something) that might get you in trouble.

      However it doesn’t always mean you have a strong moral position as in AP’s admin described above. If the slacker admin suddenly wants to leave for the day at 2:30, she’s likely to get told no if she asks for permission so instead she lies and leaves and asks for permission later. This is of course an example of a bad use of it. Other, better uses of this axiom, occur when the bureaucratic process will delay permission and have a negative impact so you choose to act and ask forgiveness instead of permission.

      It’s very situational dependent. If someone is frequently using it to excuse ignoring rules, procedures, and their management, I can’t imagine them getting away with it for long. But judicious use of it when time if of the essence and has a positive impact can be a good thing.

      1. The IT Manager

        Durr! Typo.

        If the slacker admin suddenly wants to leave for the day at 2:30, she’s likely to get told no if she asks for permission so instead she lies and leaves and asks for forgiveness later.

      2. Lindsay

        Yes. I’ve always heard it as “easier”, and viewed the saying being in regards to something that you know you will get in trouble for, but plan to do anyway.

  16. OP

    After reading through Alison’s response and all of the comments, the reasons and situations where you may ask for forgiveness and not permission are reasonable and justifiable. It made me question why I never felt comfortable with it in the first place.

    I think it always had to do more with the tone of the phrase, rather than the applicability. For example, hearing managers using the phrase to justify an action and then following it with “ha, ha, ha”, or hearing co-workers use it with a tone of superiority. I think the key within all the comments is “use sparingly” and in critical situations.

  17. Cassie

    I do feel that many times, it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, but for the love of all things sacred – if you do ask for permission and get denied, DON’T GO AHEAD AND DO IT ANYWAY! Or at least, expect there to be repercussions – not just for doing something that was not allowed, but also for disobeying directives.
    ———–
    Personally, I wouldn’t slip out of the office 2.5 hours early knowing that I wouldn’t get permission or something like that. Maybe leaving to go to lunch 15 minutes early for a special lunch or something like that but not something ridiculous. (Of course, there are some bosses that would freak out over 15 minutes regardless so you really have to know your boss/workplace).

  18. Elizabeth West

    Ooh, perfect timing. I am facing this right now at NewJob. I’m so used to checking with someone for every little thing; my manager now isn’t even in the same state! And today, I’m working from home because I’m sick (company policy- if you’re germy they don’t want you in there), so it’s even harder. There will be times when people I’m supporting aren’t in and I can VPN.
    I’m trying to keep to a routine as much as I can, so I am available for regular times during the day (I’m hourly, so that helps) and so that I can structure my time better.

    Someone I know was like “You get to telecommute; I’m jealous.” I was like “Don’t be; the neighbor’s dog will Not. Shut. Up.” >_<

  19. Adam

    The thing to remember about this saying that is overlooked in many of the comments here is that it is about getting something DONE. When you KNOW something needs to happen, but going through official channels will take too long, or the process of explaining it involves more effort than the action itself requires, show some initiative and just do it. Don’t be so afraid of making a mistake that you fail to handle something that needs to be handled. This saying is not an excuse to violate policy or break the rules for personal reasons. It is from the same mindset as “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” Not everyone is comfortable taking responsibility. Such people will continue to ask permission for every little thing and require a supervisor that micro-manages them. However, it will become increasingly more difficult to find opportunities to be micro-managed as this is not usually the most efficient business model in a fast-paced industry. More and more, companies want thinkers and doers; not blind robots.

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