It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.
One of those things is having to ask for permission.
No good deed…
Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.
Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.
One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again.
The new normal
At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal.
I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.
What choice do you have?
You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.
They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?
If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers.
If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.
Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”