At one point or another, a store clerk or customer service representative has probably said it. You thought you had asked a simple question. Maybe it was about getting the discount one day past the sale. Perhaps you were returning an item you discovered was damaged. Maybe you just wanted to switch colors. In all of these cases, the person across the counter responded with, “Let me check with my manager.” You probably thought, “Why can’t this person just make a decision?”
This kind of response is not limited to customer-facing situations. In any workplace, there are individuals who seem to check with the manager anytime there is even the slightest possibility of a mistake or misinterpretation. They distract us from our own work, engender a sense of paranoia, and drag down productivity.
In most cases, these people know what decision to make. It’s just that they fear something that nags more and more of us these days – blame. In other words, they don’t want to get in trouble if something goes wrong. Chances are, they’ve witnessed someone else getting reamed for an understandable mistake. Perhaps that person followed the procedure exactly and something unforeseen happened. But rather than taking time to examine the situation, the supervisor descended on them with “What did you do wrong?” They not only felt bad, they felt humiliated.
When everyone else saw what happened, they said to themselves. “I’m not taking any chances. I’ll ask every single time if there’s a possibility of something going wrong. I don’t want to get chewed out for an innocent mistake.” When this happens enough, the entire culture becomes overly cautious.
So, if you’re a manager who has to overcome this kind of cultural apprehension, what do you do? Use one four-word sentence — “I’ve got your back.” This simple phrase accomplishes three objectives. First, it assures everyone that they’re not going to be blamed for good decisions if things go wrong. Second, telling people, “I’ve got your back,” reinforces a sense of trust in the workplace. Third, when you tell people, “I’ve got your back,” it provides you with the opportunity to compel them to start making those decisions about which they are hesitant. We need more independent thinkers. This is a good place to begin.
Not everyone will buy into this approach at first, especially those who have been burned by a “what-did-you-do-wrong” supervisor. But if you are patient, persistent, and supportive, the cultural paranoia will begin to recede. Granted, this will not work with everyone. There will always be a holdout or two. But this may be more because they are lazy decision-makers than concerned about the risk of blame. How do you address that? I’ll save those insights for another post.