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.

Permission to speak, Sir?

Some conversation just “feel” harder to have than others. We all have one or two conversations that we need to have hanging around in our brains. We know we need to have them, but we don’t. We know we would be better for having them, but we have so many more important things to do.


I know, I have them too. Those issues that need to be tackled, those situations that need to be challenged, those problems that are….well problems, that you can’t quite face, but can’t quite live with. We’re walking around with a host of these things banging around in the dark recesses of our brains day in, day out.

Our lives our full, our days are jam-packed with situations that we deal with. But our quiet moments, our dreams, our nightmares are full of situations that we don’t deal with. Such is the complexity and intricacy of this existence that we call life. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t the whole package, but it is everything that we have and all that we will ever have.

The thing that makes these conversations tougher than the others, the thing that makes us hesitate, the thing that makes us put this back to another day, is permission.


The conversations that we have are easy.

The conversations that we don’t have are hard.

That sounds simple, but in many cases it isn’t anything to do with the actual content there is something darker going on in the back of our little minds. There is something that stops us and it is the concept of permission. We don’t feel that we are able, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to take the risk.

Yet we all know, that when we find the courage to speak out, when we find the focus to tackle these issues, when we manage to put our fears aside and open our mouths, well then things become a whole lot simpler.

Permission is a nonsense, permission is the crutch of inaction, permission is the excuse that stops you from starting your life. Permission is the kindling of the fire that will make you the person that you can and should be.

Set fire to permission, go ask the questions, go challenge the status quo. Go take a weight off your mind.

You know you’re worth it….and you know things will be better if you do.