Its better to ask for forgiveness…

Apparently I have a reputation of being a bit of a maverick. Sometimes people confuse reputations and reality.

As a “maverick”, one of the things I really dislike is when I hear people say “Its better to ask for forgiveness, than ask for permission and be denied”.

This is possibly the most effective way of destroying trust with the person who “might deny permission”. It is also ignores any higher level issues that those persons may need to consider. From a game theory perspective, you are information hiding which means you have adopted the strategy of conflict* in dealing with those persons. The result of this behaviour is that the other person might enforce more onerous controls than previous…. even if you have chosen the correct solution.

When we want to build trust, we foster transparency. If someone has a control responsibility they are much less likely to be intrusive if we actively seek them out to ensure they have the information they need to make their decisions. If we try to hide information, they will seek to impose greater control to ensure they are managing their own risk. A much more effective way to approach this situation is to communicate with them and understand why they make the decisions they do. Once you understand their requirements, it may be possible for them to reduce the level of control and place limits on your behaviour instead. You can agree with them the conditions in which you need to defer to them for decisions. When faced with uncertainty, err on the side of seeking permission. This approach will lead to more trust and greater limits.

I’m reminded of a time from my secondary school days. There were two sets for maths. I was in the top set. One day, one of the boys from the bottom set was sent to sit next to our maths teacher because he had been disruptive. Every time he raised his head to look around our teacher would immediately focus him back on his work.

He was shocked at our behaviour. Students doing exercises freely walked around the room to talk to each other…. Not only discussing the maths as those who had finished their work would openly gossip or joke or discuss other subjects. Anyone struggling with the maths was more likely to ask a fellow student for help than ask the teacher. However if someone wanted to go to the toilet, they would check with the teacher before leaving the room. That was the limit.

His maths set was ruled with an iron rod. No one was allowed to talk. No one was allowed to walk around the room. Only the teacher spoke. If you wanted to ask the teacher a question, you raised your hand and waited to be spoken to.

Why was this so? Our maths had a set of goals that were aligned with the teacher. We wanted to get good grades. We made sure we got the work done. Once we had the work done, we were free to act as we chose as long as we did not disrupt anyone not finished. The teacher was not the only person in the room helping others to learn. We had demonstrated we could be trusted to work within the initially oppressive rules and gradually our behaviour had been rewarded with less and less stringent rules.

That said, we did get in trouble once when we hid the history teacher’s black board. Apparently that was outside of the limits.

*”Strategy of Conflict” by Thomas Schelling


About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

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