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.

This article originally appeared in the Gotta Go Lean blog.

9 Responses to Every Approval Is a Leadership Failure

  1. Mike Kashani September 7, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    Managers follow the system, If the system says any one to do anything as per the system in place. So there should not be a problem. It is not a personal thing it is a system which works and put every one in the right place. What you are saying is about to respect the employees which makes sense in this respect. But every thing has to be as per procedure to follow. Another word follow the system in place otherwise no one can be in control in a system.

  2. jhajek September 7, 2011 at 8:44 am #


    Right on. I didn’t specifically say “respect for people”, but that is the underlying theme. If you give the people the right tools and the authority to make decisions on their own, they will like their job better.
    As for the comments on systems, developing them is a manager’s responsibility, hence the leadership failure if the system doesn’t work properly.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Karen Schultz September 7, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    I am so happy to see this conversation taking place. I have been working hard to convince educators that in order to grow our business as a contract manufacturer (supplier to most OEM leaders of their industry) I need machinists that understand chemistry, metalurgy, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, form, fit and function of design, interpersonal communication, programming and set ups, as well as be a bit entrepreneurish and business savvy. Middle management needs to understand lean planning, process throughput and scheduling equipment usage, maintenance and human resources and individual specialties of knowledge. Presidents / CEO should be an expert at systems thinking, understand the physical nature of what is needed to support the processes and champion the success of their internal and external team members (customers). They need to hold a masters in organizational behavior and development, not the administration pieces of accounting and financials the Vice President / CFO should be handling alongside his accounting team.
    Teach our young generations to use their strengths and be the best at contributing to winning outcomes. Business must be interwoven in the school systems adn provide the necessary education to educators about the opportunities before us. Our workforce must be a knowledge skilled community that is agile and flexible to change and able to be a life long learner intersted in self investment. It starts with individuals and if they listened to the rhetoric they spewed about others, they would provide themselves with a good place to start. We need to understand how each of is very important to a healthy holistic living system. We all fit perfectly. Find your nich and continue to improve upon it…then sell it to those you want to work aside.
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  4. Shawn W September 7, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    This is a very interesting philosophy. I can see the real value in empowerment and improved trust throughout an organization. I am curious how much backlash you have encountered when bringing this new culture and mindset to an organization. I imagine the trust gap is hard to fill for more than a few managers (and they may feel less empowered in some ways).

  5. Ed Cox September 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    I would agree that when employees need to come to management for decisions the thought process should kick in (can the need for this request be eliminated?)
    This should be part of inbred continuous improvement mindset but there may need to be management decision points in a process sometimes so that management may take advantage of mentoring situations.
    A good example would be an employee comes to a performance review prepared to justify Courses they feel will benefit them. They in all likelihood have a budgetary ceiling but without a discussion with the manager they may not make the best choice which could become lopsided towards employee interest and not have enough weight on companies need for employee’s increased performance. The interaction is an important opportunity to reenforce employee and company objectives. Done properly the employee should leave feeling good about the outcome of the interaction and not that he has no influence in his job but that he participated in the decision.

  6. Lucía September 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    Managers can change the systems they manage. If they follow the system and the system is wrong, then they have a responsability to fix it.
    Rules and procedures are there for a reason, but the environment behind those reasons evolves and can make the reasons outdated and out of place.

  7. Dave Callaghan September 8, 2011 at 2:43 am #

    I agree 100%. I work in an institution that is paralysed by this problem. The psychology and social strata problems, however, are hugely complex. I don’t believe that its simply that managers are unaware of this. Even if that is so, I don’t believe that making them aware will inspire them to change the system.

    Your basic premise is that managers and employees want the system to be more productive but don’t know how and I’m not sure that the problem is that simple. In practice, managers often introduce more levels of approval when something goes wrong rather than deal with possible root causes even though they know that this will make the system less productive. Communication between management and employees is terse as both see the other to be incompetent. And lastly, nobody wants to concede to being, in any way, at fault.

  8. Muhammad Raza September 11, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    Well i like that the employees must be empowered. But there are some employees who don’t care about company’s progress those employees will make silly decisions which will in return in the form of company’s loss. How can we control it?

  9. Jeff Hajek September 12, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Thanks to everyone for all the comments. I love it when my article starts up a conversation like this.

    Some specific replies….
    @Shawn W. There can be considerable resistance, and not just for managers. Some employees like being told exactly what to do–it absolves them of responsibility. Anytime you push someone out of their comfort zone, you have to tread carefully. The key is persistence. You can’t try to make changes overnight. Just try to take down small barriers little by little, and one day, you’ll realize you have made a cultural shift.

    @Dave Callaghan and Muhammad: Employees are not necessarily motivated by the same things that the company wants. Productivity is great for the company, but for many employees, an easy, frustration-less job where they can feel good at the end of the day is more important than productivity. Fortunately, there is a lot of overlap in the two. Find those overlaps and focus on them–when everyone is vested in the outcome, progress is easier and faster.

    Thanks again for all the comments.