Quitting is the Best Decision You Can Make

Do you want to be known as a quitter? I do. In fact, quitting has been the best decision I’ve made on occasion. Contrary to popular opinion, quitting is what the best decision makers do regularly. Allow me to explain.

Life is full of opportunities. There are new people to meet, new groups to join, new projects to launch, and on and on and on. But there is only so much time in each of our days and only so much energy with which to navigate those days. When invited to participate in a new group or opportunity, most people say yes because of the natural desire to belong or contribute. Psychologists call it the need to be needed. For those of us who enjoy being involved, this can become overwhelming. Between the meetings, tasks, and other commitments, we can reach a point where life becomes a never-ending series of activities. Eventually, we feel like we’re doing a lot, but not getting anything done. Have you ever felt this way? Maybe you do now.

So, how do you extricate yourself from this treadmill of non-stop obligations. Follow these five steps:

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Second, give yourself permission to quit. Every decision we make is made through a lens of emotion. Even in situations where the environment is toxic or you’ve realized that the commitment is a complete waste of time, you will have developed relationships you will be reluctant to end. There will be an emotional tug that you must acknowledge. Those you are leaving may even plead with you to stay involved. “Follow this through to the end,” they might say. Once you have determined that this is a group or commitment with which you should not be involved, give yourself permission to walk away. Not every commitment has a positive outcome. Not every commitment is a good use of your time. The best decision makers are able to step away from their emotional attachments and evaluate the situation with detachment. This is a key to quitting successfully.

Third, come up with a strategy for ending the commitment. This is an essential step in reducing the burnout and sense of overwhelm you probably feel. But you need to be prepared. Simply announcing that you’re quitting will generate questions you need to be prepared to answer. By providing a reasoned explanation, you will accomplish two things: 1) You will be able to preserve the relationships you have established and 2) You will reassure yourself and others you are making a reasoned decision and not acting impulsively. If you do this, there is less likelihood your departure will become awkward or even difficult.

Fourth, execute your plan. This can be the toughest part, but only if you are unprepared. If you have developed the reasoning for quitting and the words necessary to smooth your departure, the quitting should be successful. If you are prepared to make the break, you will feel a sense of relief when you have severed the relationship. The best decision makers don’t make a big deal out of it. They simply contact the key person involved, generally outside of a larger gathering, and let this person know that they will be concluding their involvement. They will be prepared with a succinct explanation of why and be prepared to hold firm if an appeal to stay involved is made. Then they move on as planned.

Finally, anticipate the emotions you might feel. The need to be needed is a powerful emotion and can hijack our determination to quit an activity, if we let it. I know this first-hand. I served on the board of a state association for years. I developed lots of lasting friendships. I had an opportunity to guide the organization. Truthfully, I enjoyed the influence that came with the position. One board member even called me an institution. In a way, a portion of my identity was tied up with this position. But this was also time I could spend growing elsewhere. Would I feel regret when ending this tenure? Sure. I would no longer be in the inner circle. But it was time. By anticipating these emotions when resigning from the board, I was able to make a smooth transition.

I should mention here that quitting an activity should not simply result in your filling that time with another commitment. Personal balance is extremely important. The best decision makers know this and work to enforce these limits. Becoming a strategic quitter may be the best step you can take in regaining control over your life. After all, leveraging your time and energy is an essential element in becoming a success, regardless of how you define it.

Is Having Too Many Choices Exhausting You?

My wife and I decided to repaint our dining room last week. On Saturday morning, we drove over to the local home center to select a color. How hard could that be? We wanted something creamsicle-like. You know, like those ice cream bars you buy from the guy playing that repetitive song as he drives his truck through your neighborhood. (Can you hear that song in your head?)

We arrived at the paint-selection wall, and it truly is a wall, to find that the paint manufacturers have created not a few, but close to 30 variations on “creamsicle” paint. After 20 minutes trying to decide which shade we liked best, I felt like I had been through another of those nuisance exercises such as choosing from 100 toothpaste varieties or 50 kinds of salad dressing.  You’ve probably had the same experience.

In the past two decades, the number of choices we have for pretty much everything has exploded. The irony of this is that the brain dislikes choices. Why? Because the brain dislikes uncertainty and uncertainty produces discomfort.

Having too many choices has three negative impacts: 1) This uncertainty prompts the release of the stressor hormones adrenaline and cortisol; 2) We exhaust our supply of blood glucose (sugar energy) as we consider each of these choices and then say to ourselves, “No that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it,” over and over and over. 3) We have to manage the fear of giving up options as a part of sorting through these selections.

Our resistance to giving up options is one of the main causes of indecision. Sales research has even indicated that if you present customers with too many choices, they will abandon the shopping process. With the advent of digital technology, this overwhelming phenomenon has become even more intense.

So how can we effectively manage these endless choice dilemmas? Here are my five top suggestions:

Get clear on your desired outcome. The more parameters you can add to your expectation of a successful choice, the easier it will be to eliminate the many options that may initially cloud your consideration when confronted with having to make the decision.

Determine how important this choice is in the bigger picture. Have you ever found yourself spending WAY too much time making a decision of little consequence? This is probably because you got swept up in all the options. Be proactive about recognizing this phenomenon and work to ignore it. Getting clear on your desired outcome helps with this.

Accept that you will never make the perfect choice, no matter how options you have. The more significant the decision, the more pressure you will feel, especially if others are watching or depending on what you do. The best decision makers make a best faith effort and then act. You’ll never completely please everyone, including yourself.

Jot down the reasons for your decision. Buyer’s remorse is alive and well, whether it’s selecting a new car or hiring an employee. After you make a significant decision, make a list of your reasons for acting the way you did. When having second-thoughts or being challenged by others, you can reference these notes to assure yourself that you made a good faith effort.

Learn from the choices you make. Take time to reflect on both the outcome and the process you used. Author Michael Mauboussin, says “When evaluating other people’s decisions, you are better served by looking at their decision making process than their outcomes.” Try this on yourself.

Life is a series of choices. Don’t waste your energy on the ones that don’t matter. Pick a toothpaste, pick a paint, pick a salad dressing and move on.

The Wisdom of Tim Allen

I have admired comedian and actor Tim Allen’s work over the years. But it would not have occurred to me to include his name and the word “wisdom” in the same sentence, that is until a few days ago. This past week, Tim was invited to give the commencement address at Hillsdale College. In addition to being both inspirational and filled with practical advice, he said something I found very reaffirming, “If you want to be the smartest person in the room, question the smartest person in the room.”

I have spent the past thirty-plus years interviewing and observing top decision makers in all walks of life, more than 3000 of them. Although I didn’t begin my career planning to do so, I can attribute most of my success to what I have learned from these people.

One of the most important insights I gained early on came not from someone I connected with, but from someone I did not. At a conference in the mid 1980s I attended a session presented by Dr. Charles Garfield, author of the book, Peak Performance. Garfield had been a computer analyst and team leader for the Apollo program which landed the first men on the moon. I found his presentation mesmerizing.

At a reception later in the evening, however, I saw him standing by himself, drink in hand looking very lonely. I was tempted to walk over, introduce myself and engage him in conversation. But I was young and new to my job. Unfortunately, my self-talk took over. Who was I to approach the man who had just presented an amazing keynote? What would I have in common with him? Why would he talk with me? Instead of approaching him, I continued to chat with a couple of friends.

This failure to grasp an opportunity haunted me for a quite while, before I finally had a heart-to-heart talk with myself and decided I would never shy away from strangers like that again. Tim Allen is right. If you want to be the smartest person in the room, get to know the smartest person in the room.

Everyone of the top decision makers I have interviewed has been . . . a person. In other words, they’re just like the rest of us. If I have found some of them intimidating at first, I’ve reminded myself that they all started someplace and made something or did something because of what they learned and how they leveraged it. It’s been my job to ask the questions other people would want to ask about how they did so.

Some have been more outgoing than others. Some have been more forthcoming than others. Some have had more patience than others. But all have shared great information. So, here’s a bit of what I have learned about getting the most from these top thinkers when you have contact with them.

Find immediate common ground. I always spend a few minutes before the conversation thinking about a way to open with a topic on which they will be able to comment. Their Linked In profile is a great place to start. If you find the right button, even those who “don’t have time to talk” will go on forever.

Do your homework. If you’re connecting with someone for help on a topic or issue, research the context ahead of time. If that person has to spend their time explaining the basics, the terminology and other information you should already know, you will not have the time to drill down for the most valuable insights. Besides, you will appear unprepared.

Match their cadence. Like many, I talk at 200 words per minute with gusts up to 350. This will shut down the person whose speed of communication is considerably slower. I have learned some amazing things from people who speak in a more deliberate way. But that means I need to adjust my cadence to theirs and let them set the pace of the conversation.

Sometimes you have to draw them out. Some decision makers I have interviewed have been very guarded in their responses. Perhaps they’ve been misquoted in the past. Maybe they’re hesitant around people they don’t know or trust. Whatever the reason, you have to be ready to gently ask for clarification or expansion on what they said. Two of my favorite phrases are, “Can you tell me a little bit more about . . .” and “Would you give me a quick illustration?” Resist the temptation, however, to summarize what they say. Chances are you’ll add details they didn’t include in their clipped responses. Then they’ll say, “No, that’s not what I said,” and you will have created an awkward disconnect.

Listen. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s harder to do than say. It is human nature to interrupt someone with your own illustration or example. Sometimes we do this looking for commonality. Sometimes it’s out of a desire to impress. But here’s the thing: They don’t really need to hear your story. They have been kind enough to grant you some time. Disrupting their train of thought may very well cost you additional insights. Other than asking the questions I have prepared, I try to talk as little as possible.

Bottom line? Top thinkers can share some great insights. But we have to take the initiative to ask and then to listen.

Conquering the Trash Can in the Garage

We have a trash can in our garage, just outside the entry door to the house. I don’t know who placed it there originally, but it sure does come in handy. Trouble is, I miss it about 50% of the time. This happens even when I’m just a couple of feet away. The trash sticks to my finger. A breeze blows through the garage. I overshoot. I undershoot. I’ve even watched whatever I was tossing land right in the center of the can and then bounce out because it ricocheted off something else. This doesn’t happen with any other trash can. Just this one.

Have you faced a dilemma like this? It doesn’t have to be a trash can. Maybe it’s the co-worker with the demanding manner. Perhaps it’s the traffic signal that always turns yellow just as you approach it. Maybe it’s the boss who never arrives on time for meetings he calls. Have these challenges become self-fulfilling prophesies over time? Have you let them consume your thinking? Do you waste time trying to resolve them, even though there’s no solution?

One morning, after I had missed the can four times in a row, I started concentrating on why this could be happening. I thought about moving the can. I thought about a larger can. I thought about slowing down and really taking aim. I even considered eliminating the trash can itself.

Then I thought, “Why am I wasting energy on this?” In reality, it’s a brain game. The brain is always seeking resolution. That’s why we feel uncomfortable during times of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. The same is true with completion. The brain is looking for closure. If the trash hits the floor instead of the can, my brain will remind me endlessly to pick it up until I do.

These same kinds of triggers occur with the demanding co-worker, the irritating traffic signal or the consistently tardy boss. But we have a choice. We can allow these irritants to consume our focus or we can reframe them. How? Here are a few ideas.

First, look for the humor – From the outside, this entire trash can thing is absurd. So why not laugh at it. Yes, the traffic signal is annoying, so why not imagine the dimwit that should know better than to program it to stop you every time?

Second, distract yourself with a mantra – My favorite mantra is, “Life’s too short,” because it is. We can’t control most of what happens to us. But we can control how we respond. “Life’s too short” alters our perspective.

Third, change the circumstance – Can you alter your route to avoid that traffic light? Can you time your arrival to coincide with your consistently tardy boss? Can you reduce your contact with the demanding co-worker? One small change can make all the difference.

Will this take a bit of time? Probably, but only as long it takes for you to replace this irritation with some other thinking. So, how have I managed my trash can dilemma? Every time it happens, I laugh. Then I say, “Life’s too short,” and I move on to issues to deserve my focus. How about you?

Is It Okay to Play Solitaire at Work?

Much has been made about the amount of time people engage in non-work activities on the job. I’ve seen estimates that range from 30 minutes to more than three hours per day. The reality is that no one can remain focused for eight hours at a time. As a result, they look for other distractions. These days, digital technology and the on-line world stands at the ready to take your mind off of the tasks at hand for hours at a time. This is true for everyone, not just the person punching the clock. We all need periods throughout the day to recharge our batteries. If we don’t, decision fatigue sets in and we make careless errors because we’ve lost focus.

So, how to you step away from the current project without losing more time than you had planned? My solution? Solitaire. No, not the type you can find on your smart phone. But the kind you play with actual cards. Why? Because there are no distractions built into the process. When you play solitaire on-line, the screen is filled with other pop-ups, messages, gifs and emojis designed to steal your attention away from the game at hand. If you decide to watch “just one” video on YouTube, you can end up squandering 30 minutes or more because of the algorithms designed to keep you fixated. It’s like Lays potato chips. You can never eat just one.

When you take a break with something offline, you are much more likely to draw line after a shorter period of time. Solitaire with playing cards takes about five minute, two minutes if you deal yourself a really bad hand. I keep a deck of cards close by so they’re easily within reach. I might play two hands if the first one is short. Sometimes I deal two bad hands. Then I know the universe telling me I should get back to work. Whether its Solitaire, reading an article, going for a short walk, or anything else, these short breaks are essential to conserving your energy. Just don’t do them on-line.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll take a break and play a game of solitaire. Who knows? I might even win!

Managing a Boss Who Makes YOUR Decisions

Casey, a young colleague of mine, complained recently that her supervisor continually makes decisions about issues he has delegated to her. This is includes such things as spending her budget and forgetting to tell her and making commitments on her time and letting her know after it’s already be scheduled.

Since this supervisor held her position immediately before being promoted, he knows it inside and out. As a result, it is second nature for him to simply act, rather than taking the time to nurture her development. Besides, many colleagues still think of him as being in that role. So, they still go to him with their issues. Being a new professional, she reasonably assumed that he would act in a logical manner. If he delegated a task, shouldn’t he let her complete it? Unfortunately, that is not happening in this case.

Casey is getting an uncomfortable dose of reality about one of the vagaries of management – the boss who doesn’t let go. This type of scenario is not confined to entry-level jobs, of course. It can happen at all levels. It just gets more nuanced further up within the organization.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story too many times. The incidence of less-than-consistent supervision pervades lots of organizations. As a result, we sometimes break the spirit of enthusiastic newcomers. If this happens enough, these emerging contributors develop a jaded sense about supervision in general. Over time, this becomes very costly if not addressed through effective management training and coaching.

Like you, I feel for Casey. We have all had to navigate at least one manager and their inconsistent ways. So, here’s what I suggested. See if you agree.

Begin by taking a breath. Casey needs to be careful not to let her frustration overtake her perspective. No one likes to have their authority undercut or circumvented, especially when it comes to scheduling and budget. That said, this is an evolving relationship. Since her supervisor held her position just prior to being promoted, she needs to accept that there will be difficulties like this until they reach an understanding about boundaries.

Have some empathy. Since he was recently promoted from her position, this makes him a new supervisor. As much as she is stretching to learn her position, he is stretching to learn how to be a boss. Those new to supervision sometimes lapse back into doing the job they were comfortable with. Why? Because it provides a sense of comfort and security. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of establishing the parameters necessary for a healthy supervisory relationship. If Casey is patient, much of this issue will probably subside as her boss gets busy with his new responsibilities.

Define the specific issues needing to be resolved. Casey will need to prioritize her concerns. She’s not going to be able to “fix” her supervisor. These issues are best handled one at a time. If she marches into his office with a list of concerns, it won’t go well. She needs to choose her battles. Which is more important right now, for instance, control over her personal schedule or control over her budget? If she is observant, by the way, she can learn about how to manipulate the budget, something she probably has little experience with.

Develop an approach that is supervisor-centered. While Casey is the one with the issues, she is asking her supervisor to change his ways. This is not something easily accomplished. We are all a product of our habits and routines. She’s going to have to convince him that these changes will be for his own good. It will save him time. It will reduce his heartburn. It will provide opportunities for him to establish better relationships with the other people he supervises. It will also make him look good when his boss sees that Casey is thriving in her job independently.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture. This is the first of what will be many supervisory relationships Casey will experience. Each one is a learning experience. Patience can be in short supply among new professionals anxious to make a difference. The best leaders and decision-makers discover that preparing well, anticipating others moves, and supporting their bosses priorities is the best way to navigate organizational culture and advance their own careers. Casey can either embrace this or resist it. Hopefully, she will embrace it.

What do you think? Is my advice on target? What would you add? What would you modify? I, and she, would like to know. Comment on the post or e-mail me at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Do Beliefs Inform Behavior?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reminded me of the old saying “beliefs inform behavior.” Everyone reading this post has heard this adage, or something similar. While we mostly invoke it when considering our outlook and perspective, it is critical for supervisors to consider it as well.

In managing people in a variety of settings over the past 35 years, I’ve always found it fascinating how different people respond differently to identical instructions. Some just put in their time and the absolute minimum effort. Others put everything they’ve got into the task, regardless of what’s involved. Then there’s the bunch that fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a seasoned manager, you’re probably thinking, “All of this is common sense.” Maybe, but how much do you use these insights to inform the way you supervise people?  Here are a few suggestions, based on my experience and those of others I’ve observed over the past three decades.

First, find ways to assess work ethic. The longer I study management and supervision, the more I am convinced that everything starts with selection. If you are not placing candidates in a situation where they are compelled to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, and creativity you’re only getting half the picture. You can’t change someone else’s work ethic. So if they don’t have it to begin with, don’t hire them, no matter how much you’re tempted. If you already have an existing team, consider what seems to motivate each individual. Even those who count the minutes on Friday afternoons are engaged by certain things. You just have to find out what they are.

Second, ask people what they think. I read Jon Huntsman’s autobiography recently. Over the past 40 years, he and his team have built the second largest chemicals and plastics producer in the world. Time and again, he mentions that the key to acquiring and turning around failing chemical plants has been to ask the people working there how to improve the company’s functions. When was the last time you asked your employees how to improve things and incorporated those suggestions?

Third, offer opportunities your people will find engaging. Once a skill or routine has been mastered it becomes repetitive, regardless of its complexity. Even the most devoted employee will grow bored with day-to-day tasks. The formula is sadly familiar: Boredom informs belief. Belief informs behavior. Whether you provide cross-training, release time for new research, industry association involvement, or some other activity, consider what can you do to reinvigorate solid performers who feel locked into a dead-end routine?

With the turnover of each employee costing tens of thousands of dollars these days, paying attention to belief and outlook is an essential element of supervision.

Knowledge is Not Power If You Don’t Share It

The phrase, “knowledge is power” is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Regardless of its origin, some people interpret this statement as an entreatment to collect information for the purposes of building control and influence. After all, if you know it and someone else doesn’t, you have the power.

The best decision-makers recognize, however, that there is a critical corollary to this principle; You cannot leverage this knowledge if you do not share it. Leaders who keep secrets unreasonably, make those they lead suspicious of their motives. Managers who refuse to empower others with reasonable authority, engender resentment, distrust and employee turnover. The same thing is true of researchers, policymakers, and anyone else who trades in the currency of knowledge. Those who openly share their knowledge, with proper discretion of course, enjoy the trust and support of those around them. When challenging times arise, it is these people who rush to aid the decision-makers making tough choices.

Granted, the journey to this philosophy can be uncomfortable. First, there is our natural tendency to want to hold on to something once you’ve got it, whether this is property or influence over others. Then there’s the issue of trust. Will those with whom you share the knowledge use it appropriately and help you achieve your goals and objectives?  Finally, there is the discomfort fostered by the establishment of a new habit or practice. It’s just so much easier to remain in your comfort zone and do what you’ve always done. This is true, by the way, whether you’re a front-line supervisor or senior executive.

But no has one ever achieved the levels of success and influence society applauds by hoarding knowledge. So, how do you go about making this transition?

Observe and learn from those who do so. Consider the best decision-makers you know. How do they disseminate their knowledge and information? With whom do they share it? On what basis do they make these choices? If you don’t know, ask them. The best thinkers are usually happy to share their strategies. That’s how they developed their skills and insights. To open the conversation, you might say something like, “I’ve admired how you seem to use your knowledge to lead others. Might I buy you a cup of coffee sometime to find out how you do it?”

Decide what will be most helpful to share. Consider the knowledge you use to do your job. Who might benefit from knowing it as well? Sharing your knowledge allows you to delegate tasks, thereby saving you time and allowing you opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. It’s been said many times that the only way one moves up within an organization is to find a suitable replacement for your present position. The only way you can do this is by sharing your knowledge. Besides, if you covet information, people will eventually find ways to work around you. You don’t have to be an open book, by the way. In fact, oversharing can send the wrong message.

Begin incrementally. As I mentioned above, adopting this approach can be uncomfortable. You might be nagged by the thought that you’re giving your power away to others. Start by assigning the little tasks you should not be doing anyway. Train the appropriate person on how to perform the task. Then empower them by saying something like, “This task is yours now. Make your own decisions. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but I am expecting you to make it your own.” If it is a considerable task, they might be uncomfortable at first. But if you persist in empowering them, they will embrace the authority.

Leveraging knowledge is how the best decision-makers empower others, leverage their time, enhance their personal power and achieve their goals. What can you do to implement the three strategies above to leverage your knowledge?

Making Decisions When the Boss Won’t Share

I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”

I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?

Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.

Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.

If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.

Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”

No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.

Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.

Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.

Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net. I’d be happy to help.




The Four Word Phrase that Improves Decisions

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.