Why Wait for Permission? Just Go!

Are you waiting for someone to give you permission to lead, grow, or move in your organization? What if you already have all the permission you need?

Why Wait for Permission? Just Go!

Photo courtesy of Istockphoto.com/KiskaMedia

I was recently invited to sit on a board and observed something there I’ve seen countless times in other settings. Some people around the table had no trouble making themselves heard, while others seemed hesitant, withdrawn, even sheepish.

It was as if the quiet people were waiting for someone to give them permission to speak. But the truth is that their presence on the board was all the permission they needed.

The scene reminded me of a story Aesop told about a farmer who rented a donkey to take some produce to market. Along the way, a traveler joined the farmer and the donkey, and when they got tired the three stopped for a rest.

Unfortunately there were no trees around so the traveler reclined in the donkey’s shadow. The farmer protested that he’d only rented the donkey, not the donkey’s shadow.

The traveler insisted that use of the donkey assumed use of the donkey’s shadow too. It wasn’t a perk, it was part of the deal.

It’s the same on a board or in a company. Unless you’ve been told only to observe, speak up! Act. Play your part. Whether it’s a seat on a board or a cube in the corner, the permission you need is assumed by your invitation. If it’s not, that’s a good sign you’re in the wrong organization.

It’s easy to retreat behind a kind of phony humility, as if not speaking were really a virtue. Some religious people might even twist a few Scripture verses to validate their sheepishness.

But not speaking up, not acting, not leading cheats everyone in at least three ways:

  1. It cheats your superiors. It’s a disappointment to the people who wanted you there to contribute. No one gets invited to suck up the room’s oxygen.
  2. It cheats the group. Important learning is on the line. If you speak up and your ideas are good, everyone benefits. If you speak up and you get corrected, there’s still a benefit for everyone. The truly humble are capable of serving the team regardless of the outcome.
  3. It cheats you. Holding back might feel like a benefit to you, but it’s a cheap win: The only thing you buy is your comfort. No personal improvement. No esteem in the eyes of your colleagues. No contribution to the organization.

I’ve been at this a long time, and so I’ve developed some confidence. But the only way to develop that confidence is to step out and speak up. Assume permission and go.

The traveler was right. If you’ve got the donkey, you’ve got permission to use his shadow. If an organization has entrusted you with a position, assume you have permission to use it.

If you’ve been invited, that’s all the permission you need. Just go.

Question: Have there been times you’ve held back in important meetings or events when your voice could have made the difference? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I am currently on sabbatical. Please excuse my absence from the comments section below. My Community Leaders will be responding in my absence. Thanks.
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  • Jack Bendahan

    Loved this article Michael. I also think that your Tweet Capture button is pretty sweet. Is this a new plug in. Pretty Cool.

  • Timothy Reed

    Great article Michael. I have been trying to verbalized this with my team for years. I will your this with them. Also the tweet capture button is a serious plus. What did you use. Would you mind sharing please.

  • http://www.Marketing4Traffic.com/ Devani Anjali Alderson

    As entrepreneurs, I think that sometimes we forget so many other people don’t just assume to give their own permission. I know I forget, and then end up frustrated when someone doesn’t just take initiative and DO something.

    Great post!

  • http://www.thadthoughts.com/ Thad Puckett

    Love this post. You do a great job reminding me to contribute…if they didn’t want my contribution, I wouldn’t have been hired. Great stuff!

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      You said it Thad! That’s a great way of looking at it!

  • deandeguara

    This issue was recently identified as one of my personalitty constraints in my personal leadership. Im a processor so I tend to listen , observe, give feedback. Problem is decisions are made quicker than I process, so im learning how to process out loud externally instead of internally and now I intentionally look for breaks in the conversation where I can at least get my thoughts, ideas, questions or concerns out there. Just this week I created 10 exercises that will help me overcome thus issue.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Great solution.

  • http://myitcareercoach.com/ Tom Henricksen

    Thanks for the good advice Michael! I will try to put this into action everyday.

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      Any immediate ways you are thinking of implementing it? Looking for ideas.

  • Tim Kuppler

    You are raising a really important point that I think is the key to an effective culture. An effective culture is one where the environment has been built so people “act on what they know” to support the purpose and values of the organization. We all have that “voice in the head” about whether we should speak-up, raise an idea, identify a problem, take an action or countless other responses. We want the feeling that there is nothing holding us back and we contribute our maximum. In some organizations there aren’t the barriers to speak-up. In others, it takes a great deal of courage.

    I used a quote from Ruth Gordon in a post this week that fits: Courage is like a muscle; it is strengthened with use.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Great quote, and very applicable in this case. We might be awkward, but the more we do it, the easier it becomes.

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      That’s an awesome quote Tim. Thanks for sharing… it’s one that I’m going to take with me.

  • Krissi

    What about the introvert? It’s not as simple as that, “just speak up.” Listened to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet” yesterday (at GLS). There are more effective ways to get the ideas & thoughts out of an introverts head than a meeting where they are expected to just speak up.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Agreed. The context comes from a setting in which verbal contribution was important, but that’s not always the case. I think Michael’s saying whatever you can do to contribute, don’t sit back.

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      As an introvert, how do you “deal” with extrovert things like meetings and such? How do you overcome the circumstances? I’m very curious so I can lead better in this area.

    • Art Stine

      I just heard @susancain speak at the Global Leadership Summit 2014. She makes a strong point that introverts will end up being quiet in group settings. However, its up to the leader of the group (here the Board Chair) to recognize the more introverted in the group, have a private conversation or two with them about how the leader can help the introvert to be heard, and then make a point in groups to make the introvert’s idea known.

      Leadership is just about casting a vision: its about ensuring that team member voices are heard.

  • http://www.cultivatecourage.com/ Dave Cornell

    Thank you for a great post, Michael. What really struck me was the statement “phony humility.” I have struggled with this a lot in my life and am working to overcome it. I’ve also struggled with feeling worthy to be in the room but you make it clear that if I’m in the room I’m worthy. Thank you!

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      He totally hit the nail on the head with that one, didn’t he?

  • Raven

    There’s another issue at play here: skill. I know because I’m not a sheepish person and I do like to share my ideas, but get me in a group of more than four people, and I really struggle to get my voice heard when others are louder and faster conversationalists. Ironically, this is particularly true in non-business social situations, and particularly with my mom and her two sisters: only THREE, and I spend most of the time listening because anytime I have an idea, I fail to get it in in time . . . or I end up accidentally interrupting/cutting someone off in the middle of the sentence, and that’s just plain rude. So, I never deliberately avoid saying what I want/need to say, but sometimes, I end up being just an observer due to my difficulties in 1) noticing the pause and 2) jumping in on time. And if I miss that pause, then I have to wait for the next one. If what I have to say truly is important, and I eventually get to a real pause, I frequently have to begin my comment with something like “This doesn’t apply to what we’re talking about now, but about what we were talking about fifteen minutes ago.” I’m getting better at this, because of being in more small groups and thus having more opportunities for practice, but it’s still difficult. I suspect being an only child contributes to this, since my parents always naturally wanted to hear what I had to say, so I never had to essentially “fight” to get into conversations.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      There are always situations where this is a challenge, but think of Michael’s point as directional more than anything. Not every context demands we jump in, but if we’re expected to do so, it’s possibly selfish to hold back.

  • Shurmon Clarke

    I also love this article, there have been many times when I did not speak up in a meeting due to fear, insecurity, not sure how it would be recieved and low self-confidence of my performance in my role. Thanks for the confidence that since I was invited, I have permission to use that influence or piviledge of being there.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Go for it!

  • http://www.coachedby.me/ Robert Prince

    That’s exactly it. If you’ve been invited to the table, you’ve been invited to participate. Don’t hold your thoughts, and opinions, they’re probably the reason you’re there to begin with.

  • John Byrnes

    Hi Michael. This is a great article. I’ve seen the same phenomena from leaders at all levels as well. This is a timely message for everyone who holds a leadership position.

  • Henry Bourne

    1. It’s hard for some people to buck the years of conditioning received at public schools. Which is to wait until you’re called upon. That’s learned helplessness. 2. A strong leader competent in leading a discussion would guide it by going around the table and making sure everyone’s had an opportunity to speak, not just turning it loose to the loudest most opinionated types.

    • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

      Henry, and you are right about the leader leading! That is very true. Thank you for that insight.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      We don’t always work for leaders like that. And in certain contexts a leader will open things up to see what comes. Choosing to hold back in moments like that could be sidelining yourself.

  • http://www.joeabrahamlive.com/ Joe Abraham

    Great post, Michael. And here’s a question: I have been in settings where the leadership was so controlling. That makes people hesitant to talk or participate actively in the process. What do you suggest that we do in such situations?

    • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

      I would be interested to hear this answer too. I would speak without fear even though I knew it was not what the boss wanted. But hey, if I can’t be me, I need to be somewhere else, I guess. But what is the relationally diplomatic way to approach it. Great question!

  • http://www.workingchristianmommy.com Gertrude Nonterah

    Excellent post Michael ! Growing up in an African background being outspoken and airing your opinions was really frowned upon. And so for me it’s been more of a cultural thing “Let those who know better than you speak” is the unspoken rule. And then there’s also the trepidation of being though of as stupid or unintelligent if you ask the “wrong question”. Over the years though, I’ve learned to get over that and share even if it will not be accepted.

    It defintely takes some practice though. Thanks for another great article.

    • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

      I have found that asking questions are great openers to my opinion. Some times that works perfectly! And I don’t think there are wrong questions. Everyone likes to have an answer.

      • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

        Great point. Asking questions also allows you to steer the conversation.

  • Pat68

    Excellent. And if after the fact you find out that some do not value your contributions, just persevere until it becomes clear that you need to move on (more for your own sake than theirs). And know that still your experience there is valuable, even if your presence was not fully appreciated. #beentheredonethat

  • http://www.christian-intellect.blogspot.com Nick Jones

    Thank you for this post. I don’t know how many times I have been hesitant to speak up in a meeting because I was the youngest person there. I have a title, but I often wonder how much permission that gives me to speak, especially when my direct superiors are not saying anything. I guess I have never thought of my inclusion as permission to speak. Incidentally, do you have any policy or recommendation for speaking up for something that needs to be addressed when your boss, whose responsibility it should be to say something, is silent or sheepish? Thanks for your insights!

  • http://johnpatrickweiss.com John Patrick Weiss

    Enjoyed the post. There are some good people in my organization who don’t speak up as often as they should. This is a great post to share with our team!

  • Holly Mac

    I agree with all said and you touch on if you don’t speak up then you’re in the wrong company, could you expand on this? How do you know the difference between needing to express yourself better or needing to change organisation?

  • Bonnie Edson

    Great post Michael. As an introvert and processor I can relate. The group dynamics of an organization or board can also affect input along with your personal level of confidence. This is a great reminder that we are there for a reason, we were chosen because of what we bring to the table, so we can be confident in that.

    • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

      Welling up the confidence for some of us is a challenge! For me, too.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    Many times Michael. I had to learn that lesson: stop waiting for permission. Learning that lessons also helped me as I chased my dream.

  • Isreal Tavarez

    Michael, you provide very solid advice. Thanks for encouraging individuals such as myself that tend to hold back from providing input during meetings to step up and to provide our input.

    • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

      It’s true and appreciated that we are at those meetings for our voice and insights!

  • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

    I agree, Michael. In fact when in positions that gathered me around an input table I often waited and hesitated. Some of reasons for doing so were valid. Sometimes I knew my insight would not be appreciated. But the irony with hesitation is that I am not at those jobs that couldn’t handle my insight. And they are in the same position they were when I worked for them. I am all about leveraging my wisdom at this point and letting the chips fall where they may.

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Michael said above that if an organization doesn’t want your contribution, it’s a good sign you’re at the wrong organization. Sounds like you’ve already learned that and are at a place that values what you have to offer.

      • http://ziklaglightkeepers.com/ Linda Potter

        Wiser for sure! And I’m sure braver.

  • Geoff Payne

    First seek to understand and then to be understood.

  • http://www.guitarsightedinstruction.com Alex Flores

    Great article! I know I hold back all the time. Sometimes all it takes is permission to own your presence in a room, so thank you for clearing the air. Going forward, I’m going to make sure I speak up!

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Right on.

  • http://daveshrein.com Dave Shrein

    My entire world view is based on this subject. My blog is titled, “Permission to Lead,” because by virtue of our experiences (successes and failures) we have something to offer. We have something to contribute.

    I heard Whitney George speak to the creative process and he made a point that I think warrants repeating. He said, “Everything’s been done, it just hasn’t been done through you,” and the point he is making is that what we have to offer is the filter of ourselves.

    So absolutely, when we don’t speak up we rob our employer, our city, our country, humanity of the contributions that only we are capable of making because until it’s done through me, it will never be done like I could do it.

    Great post.

  • Celina Holliman

    My family and I have recently moved & joined a new church. We have many years of experience in church leadership. I was asked to join the worship team because of my experience in this specific area and I was shy to contribute so as not to step on any toes. BUT, the Pastor told me to speak up and contribute! All that you shared in this post is spot on. I am no longer holding back… no more comfort zone, but much growth is happening in all of us! Thank you!

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Happy it helped!

  • http://www.intentionallifeskills.com Intentionallifeskill

    Great article, made me think alot

  • beth lehman

    Great article, as usual! Always blessed when reading your blog! Love your tweet button as well…mind sharing the source of it?

    • http://www.joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      It’s some code Michael’s developer worked up. Early stages of testing it out.

  • http://daniel-bachmann.com/ Daniel Bachmann

    Michael, exactly! There is only one person who needs to approve and give us permission to grow, learn and change…. It is of course “Ourselves” and yet the most talented people who really understand a subject and work hard tend to wait for assurance yet it may be the very nature of leadership to set goals, plan it, our daily habits and act on it without no assurance.

  • http://www.elizabethyoung.me/ Elizabeth Young

    Love this piece. Strong and timely message that I needed to hear. Thank you!

  • Grant Porteous

    Really liked the post, Michael. In the early days “at the table” I tended to defer to those with more “experience.” I think there’s a balance in all this, but not sharing thoughts and observations held back me and the processes in which I was involved. Once I understood everyone has a unique voice that makes their contribution important to the process I stopped worrying so much about how I sounded and started focusing on clearly communicating, and things really began to change. Good encouragement to wade in and be heard.

  • Ctaylor

    Great thoughts, Michael….thank you!

    I was a member of a nonprofit organization where the culture was one of entitlement via position. The executive board members operated in a rigid “pecking order” manner in which the executive officer was the sole initiator, with the president and vice president supporting the EO, regardless of the merit or mistake of the decision. The trio operated with a groupthink attitude that ‘they knew best’ and board meetings in their collective view were for validations only. The secretary and treasurer, although equal in power on the board, were regarded as second class board members expected to “follow.” If a strong extroverted treasurer or secretary was elected, his or her tenure
    was cut short by undermining and sabotage by a ‘click culture.’ Any board member bringing a voice and ideas that didn’t conform to the groupthink, the ‘click,’ treated her or him as a ‘rebel rouser’. Sadly, this grand nonprofit dissolved.
    Like other nonprofits refusing to change culture, this organization was tragically doomed with
    this type of structure that permeated through all levels. The state presidents were board members and had no real voice as well. In this situation “those who spoke up were put down.” I see this dysfunctional phenomena in some nonprofit boards and many of those are either defunct or on their way to certain organizational death. You may have seen well-meaning boards that have
    fallen into this type of model with egos prevailing. This is an all too familiar story: The destructive cycle was not broken because espoused ‘change’ did not match reality. Board members were
    not team members. The lure of personal power and egos trumped selfless service.
    Yes, there were many wonderful achievements over more than a quarter of century! Like all nonprofits, there were many problems this organization faced but a core problem in this organization was that voices were silenced and leadership failed to change from groupthink.

    Metaphorical Moral of the Tale: When the Titanic is headed for the iceberg, don’t rearrange
    the chairs. Listen to your crew, your team. There is a BIG difference between a rebel rouser and individuals who could help make changes to avoid disaster and point the ship toward a
    successful direction. Speak up on your board and as a responsible board member,
    encourage other board members to contribute.

  • Barry Gruenberg

    This is an important point, Michael and I agree wholeheartedly that it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. But I think there is an additional point that follows from yours, namely that effective leaders need to create space for those who are reluctant to speak. Many leaders will fill a silence with their ideas, making it difficult for others with different ideas to speak up. Creating an environment in which everyone feels their views will be taken seriously is important if you want to take advantage of the ideas and experience available to you. And no one has more opportunity to create this environment than the leader.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com/ Joseph Lalonde

      That’s a great point Barry. Sometimes those that aren’t speaking up feel there isn’t enough space to do so. I think there’s another point that’s missing as well. What about those who don’t speak up because they’re still processing the information?

      • http://www.barrygru.com Barry Gruenberg

        Absolutely Joseph. I had to learn this difficult lesson when I was part of a multi-cultural OD team. I come up with ideas quickly and would offer them up as they occurred to me. I learned that I was generating a lot of resentment because the other members of the team had to process in a second language and then translate back into English. I had to back off and wait for them to contribute if I wanted my ideas to be heard and also to get the benefit of their ideas.

  • http://www.counselorgames.com Grace Wilhelm

    Let’s go counselors! Here is to a new year to make a difference in your school!

  • Terrie Wurzbacher

    This is such great advice and really hit home for me Michael. Thanks. I know that I’ve been staying away from the Donkey’s shadow too much in my life. Your insight will help me move forward when I’m in that position again. Thanks!

  • http://dominicpacheco.com/ Dominic Pacheco

    Great article Michael! This one hit home for me. The reason it does is because in the past I was That Guy. At the time, I was not able to articulate the reasons for not wanting to contribute but looking back now, I think it had to do with the fear of being exposed and not being liked. Keeping quiet is safe. I have always been an out of the box thinker and was concerned with alienating myself from the group if I shared ideas that others did not agree with. When I came to this realization, it occurred to me that I was acting from a position of self preservation instead of wanting to make a valuable difference and doing so was coming from a position of weakness. Stepping out to make a contribution did take a great deal of courage initially, but paid huge dividends in allowing me to define a place of authenticity for myself.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com/ Joseph Lalonde

    I’m torn on this Michael. I love the advice that we have permission to go yet I’m not sure you’re looking at the whole picture.

    There are many people who won’t speak up not because they don’t feel they don’t have permission but because they’re still thinking through what has happened in the meeting. They don’t want to jump in when they feel like they don’t have all the information or time to process.

    For these types of people, what should they do?

  • http://www.bloggingfromparadise.com/ Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Michael,

    Nothing is no selfish as holding back and not sharing your talents with the world. Speak up. Tell your story.

    Be bold. Bold people change the world, and in almost all cases, shy people make no impact because nobody hears them.

    Unless you are extraordinarily talented, and driven, and get hooked up with the exact right people who expand your presence, you’ll need to be really bold, and to speak up, so the world can hear your story.

    I’ve been on a marketing blitz both with my blog and eBook and doing so helped me land a combination of 20 appearances on top shelf blogs, from interviews, to guest posts, to features. I spoke up about me, living in Fiji, blogging from paradise and helping people retire to a life of island hopping through blogging, and because I spoke up I inspired so many folks.

    Love it Michael.

    Tweeting now.

    Enjoy your week :)


  • http://www.nickcerda.org/ Nick Cerda

    I worked at a job that had an unspoken hierarchy of who was allowed to speak when. Seldom lacking self-confidence I would often break the “rules” and assert my opinion where I thought it would be useful. However, many of my younger co-workers would not. It began a mantra that I would often share with them- act like you belong here. Like in your post I tried to explain by the very act that you received a meeting request for this meeting means your input is both valid and needed. It was amazing to see their self-confidence and then job performance bloom from simply changing their mindset.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/cdmerrick Caren Merrick

    This is especially true for women, some of whom are amused or frustrated in a meeting when they raise a good idea, it is not acknowledged, then a male colleague mentions the same idea and is given credit! Especially when this happens, it’s important to keep stepping up and speaking out. Thanks for a terrific article.

  • Justin Chapman

    I was at a songwriting retreat where we were formulating song titles. Someone came up with “Nothing Is Broken,” which I thought the Bible says nothing about and actually refutes. I let it go, not wanting to offend the person. My group got landed with that title to write a song with!

  • Victoria Mininger

    Excellent Michael. I will be sharing this with my team this week. I think when I was younger I struggled to speak up, wrongly thinking that age had anything to do with value of thoughts and ideas. Now I ask myself. “What value can I add to my team? How can I help us grow.” That is what helps me to speak up now. Thank you for the post.

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  • http://www.toddkmarsha.com/ Todd K Marsha

    Fear drives a lot of timidity in meetings. Fear of rejection, fear of criticism, and even fear of additional responsibility should the room like the suggestion and want to incorporate it. Saying don’t be afraid isn’t enough. You have to value what you’ll learn and how you’ll grow from the experience more than the security that comes from remaining inside your comfort zone.

  • Raul

    Not speaking up has held me back in my career. I’m forcing myself to speak up more in meetings and get noticed. It goes against my quiet/reserved personality, but I’m determined to change that and reach my potential.

  • PaulVandermill

    Hello Michael,

    This is a very timely article. I just returned from a board meeting, my second. On each occasion I have been sheepish while trying to learn the players and the organization’s current matters of concern. After reading your post I will get out of that mode more quickly.

    A few years ago I was hired into a leadership role within my company with the understanding that I was not expected to be a “yes man.” Senior leadership changed and speaking up and expressing your ideas was not welcome.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. We lose something when we don’t or are not permitted to participate fully. So does the company or our constituents. It’s like a small bite is taken out of you each time you do not or cannot engage. What has occurred to me many times as of late when you don’t just go is simply, where is the fun in that?!


  • Carlene Byron

    I’ll give one caution on this one. There really are still organizations where the organizational culture significantly limits who is “authorized” to provide input and how. You may not be “told only to observe” but if you can see that people only speak when spoken to … do likewise.