Cultures of permission

I’ve had the honour to work in a range of different organisations, in different sectors, to see and support teams that operate both successfully and…well, let’s call it sub optimally. And in every organisation I’ve worked in, at one point or another, I’ve seen teams operating in a culture of permission.

There’s many a definition of a  culture of permission, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it “an organisational system where people have given up their work based autonomy (either consciously or subconsciously) and choose to respond instead to instruction and direction”.

It’s important to separate this from an authoritarian culture where permission is explicitly required – we’ve all worked for leaders in teams that have an inherent need to control and pass everything through a system of sign off and approval. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Cultures of permission fascinate me, particularly the disconnect that is often witnessed between espoused desire and actual contribution. Employees and line managers will talk about the desire to change things, or the desire for people to take action and contribute more and yet the status quo persists.

If only people would take a bit more responsibility
If only we were allowed to take more responsibility

At the heart of this is often organisational memory. Something or someone at some point in time has caused this stasis and the disconnect between belief and action forces the team into a form of vicious circle. The manager becomes more and more hands on and more directive in order to try to get things moving and inadvertently reinforces the learned helplessness.

Ultimately the answer is not to do, but to coach. To support and encourage a new behavioural system and new way of working that align more closely with desired intent. That of course takes time and courage, recognising that not everything will immediately go according to plan.

They say if you want something done, give it to someone busy. That’s an alluring thought, but in a culture of permission one that has to be avoided at all cost. Encouraging and allowing everyone to step up is critical to breaking the vicious cycle that exists.