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Give Your Employees Permission to Speak – Then Prepare to Be Amazed!



by Kelly Vandever

I’m passionate about giving employees permission to speak and engaging your staff to speak up. I’m passionate because I’ve seen the impact on employees and on business results.

Here’s the story of how I came to believe so strongly in giving employees permission to speak.


The Problem: Processing Travel Claims

At my second duty station, we processed all the travel claims of military personnel who transferred to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola for a permanent assignment. We also processed travel claims for those who had to travel for work at another location for a temporary duty assignment. We were required by regulation to process those travel claims within 30 days. We were averaging more than 45 days. Unacceptable.


The Project Team

My boss asked me to lead a project team to solve this specific problem. I think he selected me because I’d recently been through a training course on Total Quality Management – a management approach that has employees involved with a situation come together to resolve the issues, rather than having management tell the employees what to do.

My boss and I, together with the section supervisors, identified staff members who were part of the process and asked them to join the project team.


Kelly Did Not Know the Right Answers

I was still pretty new to the command and frankly, didn’t understand all the moving pieces contained in the process. I make this point so that you know I didn’t have a preconceived notion on how to fix our problem and just planned to use the project team as my lackeys to carry out my grand scheme.

I had no choice but to rely heavily on the people on the team, so you better believe these people had permission to speak to help solve this problem! And they did.


Employees Want to Contribute

I’d like to tell you the nitty-gritty details and discuss the drama that went on while the team worked through solving this problem. But quite frankly, nothing really stands out in my memory about our meetings because they were pretty much drama free.

These employees wanted to fix the problem. They wanted to cooperate across organizational lines. They wanted to be proud of the quality of the work they produced and meet our customers’ needs.

It’s true of your employees too. People want to be asked. They want to be empowered. They can make a difference. They believe in themselves. They are waiting for you to give them the chance.


The Results

What do you think we did? Did we solve the problem? You bet we did!

Did we get the processing time down below 30 days? 25 days? 20 days?

Actually, we took processing time down to less than 10 days!!! I know! Crazy, right?!


Another Important Lesson Learned Along the Way

After the team had met a couple of times, I met with my boss to give him an update. My boss was unique in the Navy in that he was prior enlisted and he really understood what our staff did because he’d done it when he was enlisted. As I was explaining some of the suggestions that had come up, he off-handedly said, “Have you thought about ABC?”

I said, “No, but that’s a great idea. Way better than anything we’ve come up with! Why don’t you come to the next meeting and suggest it to the team?”

He said, “Absolutely not.”

I started to argue but he stopped me. “If they come up with the solution,” he said, “they’ll make sure it works.”

Frankly, I didn’t believe him. I was a really good student in school. I believed in always searching for the right answer; the best answer. But he was firm on his stance.

So the work continued, the group didn’t use ABC but instead came up with what we’ll call XYZ — and you’ve already heard the results. This is life, not school. There’s more than one right answer, there’s more than one best way to do anything.

And my boss was right. They made it work.


Can You Apply “Permission to Speak” Where You Lead?

What are problems that are causing challenges to your organization? Have you involved those who are part of those processes in coming up with solutions? Have you given them permission to speak?

It’s not easy to give up control as a manager…but be willing to open up. Be willing to let loose of control. Let your staff solve the problem. See what happens.

Then be prepared to be amazed by the results.





Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Connect with Kelly and discover how opening up and speaking practically can bring you better business results.

Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.