About a month ago, I bought my wife a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. By that point, the media had me convinced that everyone woman (and some men) in America was reading this book. A few of her close friends had been reading the book and talking to her about it, but she hadn’t bought it yet. So, I bought it for her. I told her that I thought she deserved to know what everyone else was talking about. Admittedly, I had other selfish motives, but this is a professional blog so we’ll not get into that.
I have to admit that I’ve been fascinated by the widespread popularity of this book, mainly because is so centrally about sex. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s so popular. What is interesting to me is how widely and openly people are willing to discuss the book. I’m not reading the book now. Not because I wouldn’t read it, but because I don’t have time to read it at this point. I have however, been asking my wife about the story lines (she’s now read the first two books of the trilogy). As she’s told me about the book and I’ve finally started to realize why this book is so popular.
This book gives it’s readers the permission to think about, fantasize about and even (gasp) talk about things that a lot of people keep bottled up most of the time. I know from personal experience that my wife and I have had more conversations about sex in the past month than we’d had in a very long time. I don’t know that we felt that we couldn’t have those conversations, but rather we just weren’t. The book has provided us the permission and the catalyst for the conversations. It’s been very healthy for our relationship. I’m glad I picked up that book.
Permissions are powerful. My friend and colleague, Jeffrey Cufaude, originally got me thinking about permissions. We have a tendency to get wrapped up in permissions. What are we allowed to do? What aren’t we allowed to do? The need for permissions are drilled into us at very early ages by our parents and school teachers. When we are younger, we learn where we need permissions after we did something we probably weren’t supposed to do. Children constantly test their boundaries. As adults, though, too many of us wait for permission. And worse, we’ve started to assume we have barriers that don’t even exist. We don’t explore our boundaries. We stay in the “safe zone,” waiting for someone to come along and tell us that we have permission to move along.
When we look to our organizations and we talk about things like culture change and transformation, I think it’s easy to overlook the inertia created by “waiting for permission.” If you want to change a group’s dynamics or behaviors, sometimes you have to find a way to grant permission to people to take the next steps. Here are some ways I’ve found effective to grant employees permission to change their behaviors:
- Visible actions by executive leadership. If you want more transparency or candor, find a way to show your top executives demonstrating it. If you want people to take more risks, show an executive taking a personal risk. If the big kahunas are doing it, that gives those of us on the front lines permission to try the same thing.
- Introduce a book or training session that lays out a new concept or language. Creativity or communication can sometimes be kick started by giving key team members a new framework to use in talking about it. The book/training implies an expectation to do something different.
- Specific, significant and visible recognition of the new behavior. We do what is rewarded, even at times when it goes contrary to our own best interests. Find someone doing what you are looking for and make a big deal of it. Then, do it again and again until there are too many people to recognize.
People generally have the energy and desire to do something cool, they just don’t think they have permission. Until we can figure out how to deprogram them from the need for permission, think about how you can creatively give them more permission to to do exceptional things.