My first professional job in operations was as a program director in a university. I reported to the Dean of Student Services/Provost, at that time.
I didn’t fully realize then how lucky I was to be mentored by such a profoundly strong leader: Scott.
Scott gave me the first piece of valuable advice:
Know When it is Better to Ask Forgiveness than Permission
I know this sounds crazy, right? And in many companies this is crazy. What Scott was telling me in his few words, was to know the difference and own it. When we ask for permission, it is often because what we want to do is reckless. Now, it may also be the right call, but some element or all elements have a degree of risk with a variety of outcomes. When we ask permission to do something reckless, we are asking someone else to own part of the outcome. Sure, this could be because we want the second option, but mostly it is shared responsibility for what happens next.
Scott told me to know the difference…
To know the difference is a fine line. Each decision has a level of risk. To move forward with a risky call and own it fully on yourself ALSO risks being 100% wrong and responsible. But to share the risk and ask for permission means you may NOT get permission and miss out on the right call.
So how do you know when something is smart-reckless?
For me, and really I think most people, it is about learning to trust your instincts. Every time I have rationalize a decision against my initial instinct, I have failed. I want to be clear here: I’m talking every-single-damn-time!
Once, I hired someone who was great on paper with great references and hit all the things on the list of needs and wants. Rationally, she was the perfect person. Yet my instincts told me to tread with caution. I felt like her answers were too perfect, as if she was telling me everything I wanted to hear. It was the subtlest hint of disingenuous micro-expressions or mannerisms. Clever ways of repeating things I said in a new manner. I kept pondering, “is she mirroring me or does she really agree?”
In this situation, I shared the responsibility. I had others interview her to get their sense. As a group, we decided she was the most qualified applicant and her experience warranted her to receive the position.
Ultimately, I should have trusted that little voice in my head questioning her sincerity. She was the perfect mimic to get the job, but that stopped once she was in the job. The hard truth is that my warning alarms would not have gone off if she actually were sincere…
But we are conditioned to listen to data and provable facts…
In college, I dated a guy who was working at a local church. They had just hired a new pastor and were very excited about his energy and style. In his first weeks, the new pastor headed up new marketing campaigns. His smiling face was placed on every pamphlet, banner, poster, ad…everything and everywhere. You could never mistake who he was or miss him in a crowd.
But that little voice in my head started setting off the same warning to proceed with caution. The more changes I saw, the more uneasy I became. Since I’m not one to become uneasy with change, I knew that wasn’t the source. But I really couldn’t explain why I felt that way.
There was no definable data to justify the distrust I felt…
Unlike my prior example where my logical head won over my intuition, when it came to this pastor, the more I tried to rationalize, the louder that inner voice became.
It all came to a breaking point when I finally had the chance to meet the pastor in person (yes, all of these concerns came from observing his decision making but not him). I walked away from my meeting with 100% certainty that my instincts were right.
I looked my boyfriend in the eye and without a moment of hesitation or doubt stated, “I’m so sorry. I know you are excited for him, but that man is a crook. You will never change my mind on this.”
I knew what I was doing taking such a firm stance. I knew I was rolling the dice and accepted that I could have to face asking forgiveness later. But I also knew I was right….
That decision ended my relationship, naturally. But 6 months later, it hit the front page of the newspaper. I had no data supporting why I thought he was specifically a crook, which is different than arrogant or incompetent, but it was how I felt. As I read through the newspaper, they laid out his fraudulent activity from insurance fraud to credit card fraud to his latest scams in church donation fraud.
To know the difference is to know…
When I think about Scott’s advice to me, I think about the level of knowing. In the case of the bad hire, I chose to ask permission because my intuition, while right, wasn’t overly strong. It warranted seeking permission and shared responsibility because the data was stronger than my sense of the person.
In the case of the pastor, I couldn’t make any other decision.
When your gut is screaming at you, it’s time to be a little reckless.
Like this blog? Check out my nerdier science driven blog on intuition.