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Every Approval Is a Leadership Failure

Businesses are full of managerial approval loops.

  • An employee wants to take a break, and he must check in with the supervisor.
  • An employee wants to buy a hand tool, and she must go through channels to put in the request.
  • A back-office employee wants to do something to take care of a customer, and he has to get permission.
  • An employee wants to learn a new skill, and must get authorization from her manager for the company to pay for evening classes.

In each of these cases, if you talked to the manager, you would probably hear something along the lines of the approval being a check to ensure that the employee does not make a mistake. These bosses feel like the approval process is good for the company.

But I see it as something significantly different. I see a red flag that screams poor process. I see a lack of trust. I see unclear standards. I see an untrained employee.

In short, I see a leadership failing.

Even worse, I would bet that in many cases, the same employees who are told to get approval for these sorts of routine actions are also being told to take the initiative in their job. What kind of mixed message is that? If a worker can’t buy a new socket without a signature, will he really believe that the boss wants him to implement improvement ideas on his own? Not likely.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about letting employees make any decision they want. I certainly am not advocating letting an administrative assistance decide the ins and outs of building a new $50 million facility. What I am talking about is letting frontline employees make decisions relevant to their jobs without needing her boss to make a routine decision.

If you are a manager, treat every approval that you are asked to make as a failure. And then go a step further and countermeasure each and every one you deny. Figure out why the employee thought the action was warranted, and then improve the process or train the employee better so the next decision will be more in line with your expectations. And who knows. You might even find that you will actually change your expectations, and will start seeing things the way the employee does. Either way, a gap is closed, and the need for approval diminishes.

Over time, you will find that you won’t be denying any approvals, and you can eliminate the whole feedback loop. It is rare to find a win-win-win situation. But in this case, the company wins because people are not tied up doing wasteful activity. The employee wins because she feels empowered and trusted. And you win because you don’t have to spend your time approving routine activities.

So, managers, from this point on, I want you to change your thinking. Every time someone comes to you for authorization, don’t think that you are protecting the company. Look at the interaction as a defect that must be eliminated. And remember, the error that caused that defect most likely comes from one of your own leadership processes.


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Share Your Thoughts    |3 comments|


  • Organizations that still operate in that manner will not remain competitive. I would like to see progressive companies remove last and biggest institutional approval system, the performance review.

    • Jeff Hajek says:


      I have to disagree with you on the performance review piece. I think the typical PA system is broken, but I think employees need more review, not less. I just think it should be in a constant, JIT manner. I don’t see a PA as an approval process. I see it as a PDCA cycle.

      I’ve gotten into long debates over this topic, but the truth is that people thrive on being accepted and rewarded for their value. People like to compete, and they like to be measured. They like to win. Think about what people do after work. They go right out and play softball, or hit a bar and play darts, where they bask in the glory of a strong performance appraisal by their peers.

      The problem with performance appraisals is not that they exist, but that they are done unfairly or inconsistently.

      Thanks for the comment. I always love to see where these discussions go.


  • […] il problem solving e motivare le persone a fare la cosa giusta… (traduzione automatica)Every Approval is a Leadership Failure dal blog Gotta Go Lean di Jeff Hajek: Ogni approvazione necessaria è un fallimento del processo e […]

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