Is It Really Better To Ask For Forgiveness…?

I’ve been hearing this way too often lately. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” It’s catchy. It sounds just enough like wisdom to pass for wisdom. But does it have any substance? Does it give us any moral guidance?

I hope no one believes it’s always better to ask for forgiveness. That would justify, for example, date rape in cases where consent was not clear. So let’s consider the statement, “It’s sometimes better to ask forgiveness…”

But this statement is fraught with questions. How do we know whether this situation is one of the sometimes where asking for forgiveness is better? What do we mean by better? Better for whom?

Here’s a headline from an article in today’s issue of my local newspaper: “Native site may delay $3.8B pipeline”. A Native American archeological site has been discovered during the construction of an oil pipeline. Delay costs a lot of money. Should the pipeline company bulldoze right through and then ask for forgiveness? (Assume the penalty would be a fine rather than an order to stop the pipeline completely.)

Your answer reveals something about your value system. In all cases, when you’re asking this question you’re in a situation where you’re contemplating doing something that you believe A) is deemed to be wrong (or at least questionable), or B) will not be well received by certain people. Then you do a cost/benefit analysis. Once I take this action, does the probable benefit outweigh the probable cost to me?

For instance, suppose you have an opportunity to close a very large sale, but the prospect wants a delivery date that the production and service people will view as completely out of the question. Do you call them to discuss it, or do you promise the delivery date and close the deal? You know they’ll be pissed off, but you know you won’t get fired. You’ll get your anatomy chewed and they’ll have to figure it out. Again, your decision reveals something about your value system.

It’s also important to understand that this decision does not take place in a vacuum. There’s always a context. How often do you make decisions where you choose to ask for forgiveness? Is this a truly rare situation, or are you constantly doing it? The more frequently you ask for forgiveness, the more likely your associates will realize you don’t care about them. You care about only what you want and what you can get away with.

I believe there are indeed times when it’s better to ask for forgiveness. Suppose, for instance, that your driver’s license is suspended and someone you’re with suffers a life-threatening injury. Do you drive them to the emergency room? Of course you do.

It seems to me that this issue boils down to a matter of frequency. You might be proud of boldly moving your agenda forward. But be careful; this is a slippery slope. If you too frequently act in ways that require forgiveness, people will know you don’t really care about them. They won’t trust you. They won’t respect you. In my opinion, that’s too high a price to pay. But, of course, that’s my value system.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

One thought on “Is It Really Better To Ask For Forgiveness…?

  1. I have to agree. I think the idea of not asking for permission should never be followed up with the ‘better to ask for forgiveness’ piece. As you’ve pointed out that immediately conjures up scenarios where what you’re contemplating is wrong. The choice to forego permission is therefore an attempt to prevent to sneak the action past the relevant authority.

    I’m a fan of Seth Godin who is a big proponent of giving yourself permission. That said this is always within the context of overcoming internal, personal resistance to standing up and doing your best work especially when it challenges the status quo. So it’s more like “don’t wait for someone to pick you or give you permission to create or achieve. Give yourself permission and just do it”. I get how this an attractive idea. But now also, thanks to your insightful post, I see how it can be dangerous when taken out of context.

    Like

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