Asking Vs. Informing: The Unwritten Rules

You've just made an important decision at work. Now it's time to email your boss.

Does your email sound more like this?

“I’ve explored several options, and I'm confident that I have identified the best one to resolve our budget issue. I’ll move forward with this unless you have any major concerns.”

Or this?

“I've explored several options, and I have identified the best one to resolve our budget issue. Are you OK with it? Can I move forward?”

Although these two replies are similar, over time, the tone of each can impact your credibility and your relationships with others very differently. Let’s take a look at how to navigate the unwritten rules of asking for permission vs. informing others about your decisions.

Asking Vs. Informing_ The Unwritten Rules.png

How Often Do You Ask for Permission?

Leaders who tend to ask for permission usually do so for positive reasons: to show respect for hierarchy, to demonstrate that they are open to other perspectives, or to show a willingness to be a team player.  Unless you recognize the nuances of doing this from a position of strength, it could have the opposite effect on how you are viewed. 

For example, you have to notice the fine line between getting input from others and allowing others to make the decision on your behalf.  As a leader within your organization, others expect you to be able to make decisions – easy and tough ones. If you consistently seek approval before doing so or make major changes after getting input, you might convey a lack of confidence that diminishes your credibility. If this happens, people will start to go around you to the “real” decisionmaker and may even question whether you have what it takes it to lead.

Over the short and long term, constantly asking for permission can affect important relationships including the one with your boss. If your boss tends to micromanage, you might think that asking for permission might be wise, but it can backfire and reinforce already unproductive patterns in your relationship. Inviting your boss to weigh in all the time can set a tone that can be hard to change. 

How to Inform Instead of Ask

So how can you find a better balance between asking for permission and telling others about the decisions you've made?

First, notice your own patterns by reflecting about some recent decisions. How often do you inform your boss vs. ask for approval? How do you typically engage your boss in decision-making processes? Based on your behavior, who was the implied decisionmaker most of the time for decisions that fell into the scope of your authority? If your boss typically provides detailed input, how much does that input change your original decision? How often do others assume that you changed your mind because your boss doesn’t trust in your leadership, is a micromanager, or for a valid business reason?

Second, the next time you're about to ask permission to do something, pause for a moment.  Think about what you want to convey about your own capabilities and confidence. Then put yourself in your boss's shoes. Would you wonder, "Why are you asking me to spend my time on this? Can’t you figure it out yourself?" Or would you expect to be heavily involved in shaping the solution?  Consider both perspectives, yours and your boss’s, as you formulate your approach.

If you decide to inform instead of ask, concisely explain your logic to your boss without getting bogged down in details, and express your confidence in your proposed course of action. Here are a couple of phrases that demonstrate respect, consideration and your capabilities:

"Unless you think there's something else important that I should consider, I'll get started."

" I know we have a lot going on and I want to be respectful of your time. So, I’ve done the groundwork, feel good about the direction, and am ready to move forward.”

To continue building your brand as a capable leader, check out "Building Executive Presence" from my Leadership EDGE Series.℠

And if you'd like to read more on the unwritten rules of work, check out the past installments in this series: 

If you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.

LIKE THIS POST? Sign up below to get THE EDGE and access to other valuable free resources.