New Leads Need to Give Real-Time Permission

August 16, 2022
Permission Slip Clip Art

Okay, okay, so the title should really be “New Leads (probably) Need to Practice Real-Time Permission (if they’re still uncomfortable with conflict, especially when a power dynamic is involved)”, but I feel like you get it.

Where does “Real-Time Permission” come from?

“Real-Time Permission” is a concept I barely acknowledged when I first read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. BUT, a good friend recently introduced me to his podcast, Episode 83. Be a jerk, where Tracy Noble mentioned it again, and I realized what a gem it is for new leads!

Why yes, I am going to turn a few sentences from a book into an entire blog post 🙈

What is “Real-Time Permission”?

You are leading a team that has just started practicing engaging in healthy conflict. Your role, as lead, is to give permission to folks when they’re participating in such conflict.

You’re hanging out in your team area, and you overhear a little bit of discord between two of your teammates. The conflict is healthy, but both people seem really uncomfortable – maybe you pick up on some anxiety or guilt over where the conversation is going. Before they have a chance to retreat, you jump in with…

Hey, what you’re doing is great for the team, and it’s going to help us come to a better solution. You’re not doing anything wrong, you’re doing exactly what we need. Great work folks!

This permission is so important for teams to get comfy in conflict. It changes the inner monologue to “oh, this is gross, they’re going to hate hearing this” to “okay, muscle through this part, because we really do need to decide if this is the best path forward for the good of the team.”

Why is RTP useful for new leads?

Patrick Lencioni introduces this concept as way for all leads to help their teams get comfy with conflict. But! Your team also needs to get cozy engaging in healthy conflict with you, their lead. I’m proposing that you can use RTP for this purpose as well.

When you’re entering into the beginning phases of leadership, you’re leading people who need to get used to talking to you as their lead, rather than as their friend or as an individual contributor on their team. When you’re their lead, there’s a power dynamic at play. That dynamic makes engaging in conflict especially uncomfortable for everyone involved. Real-Time Permission is a great way to inject encouragement into some potentially cringe-y situations.

RTP For Your Team

New leads are used to having friends.

On any other project besides the one I lead, I’ve been able to rely on my work friends calling me out on stuff because – why wouldn’t they? They know we’re on the same side, on the same level, doing the same work. They know me well enough as a developer to know that I enjoy a good debate and that I go so far as to actually consider feedback the Intellectual Property of the team. “To withhold feedback is to steal my IP!” (Not sure where I stole that from, but I love it so much!)

As a new lead, you don’t have friends. I mean… you do, but now you’re everyone’s accountability buddy first, which makes the whole dynamic much more complicated. Accountability gets crunchy at times, and your friends will forgive the crunchiness, but they will not forget that you are responsible for the project and that ultimately the relationship has shifted.

This is why it’s helpful to give explicit permission for your teammates to continue debating you in your new role. Real-Time Permission is a cool tool to use to get your team comfortable with debating your ideas.

Story Time

A number of times, I’ve had someone pop by my desk, and for some reason they’re extra fidgety. I realize, oh man, they do not want to say whatever it is that they’re about to say. Maybe they end up saying something like

Hey Giuls, can we talk about your code review comments on my Pull Request? I… uh… well, I disagree with your recommendation and…

This is the perfect time to jump in with some permission,

Hey, real quick, just wanted to say that I’m so glad you brought this up. What you’re doing is in the best interest of the code and the team, and I appreciate you opening up the debate.

Just like with RTP between teammates, you’re allowing people to relax in the midst of a pretty gross-feeling conflict with their lead. You set the tone for how you’re going to react to people opposing you. You make it easier for them to do it again.

RTP For Yourself

As a new lead, I was used to team conflict, and not at all comfortable with 1-on-1 conflict.

A luxury of individual contributors is getting to live in the safety of “team-centric thinking.” On any team I’ve ever been on, it’s always been…

It’s the team’s bug, what are we going to do to fix it?

Why did we decide to go with that solution?

We nailed the Sprint Review!

Notice “we,” not “you” or “I”. I found this language so safe and cozy… annnnd I had to leave it in the dust sometimes when it came to my lead responsibilities. It may just be my experience, but most of my opportunities for healthy conflict stemmed from personal accountability.

Story Time

One time I had to show up to a really tough 1-on-1 with my teammate and friend. I ended up having to address something like…

Hey, you forgot you signed up to facilitate the meeting last Friday, can you help me understand what happened?

There’s absolutely no way for me to couch that as a “we” issue, and so there’s a need to be more direct, and by nature, more personal. And that’s a tougher conversation to navigate, especially because you like your teammates and you don’t want them to hurt personally while you’re caring for the team’s best interest.

All of the work you’re doing, using RTP, to help encourage your team to be comfortable with conflict will also help you feeling comfortable in the new types of conflict you’re going to experience as a lead. Since you built a culture of leaning into conflict, and now that you’ll have other people modeling that behavior, it’s not that gross to continue that kind of communication for new, crunchier types of issues.

Get in, Get out.

By using RTP, you’ll be injecting yourself into conversations you may not have been originally a part of. Permitting healthy conflict is a great reason to butt in, but then you should butt out.

I always get the urge to offer my own opinions. I also might get the urge to play facilitator and try to help folks navigate conflict. Neither of which are your responsibility as a team lead. In fact, you’d be doing your teammates a disservice by not allowing them to practice navigating the conversation and it’s solution on their own (paraphrasing directly from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).

To break my habit of butting in, I started to take notes with observations or feedback to offer individuals after the event, should they ask for it.

And when you’re using RTP to encourage your teammates to engage with you in healthy conflict, the same is true. You don’t want to derail their point with a bunch of meta feedback. Your role is to reduce their anxiety so that they can be comfortable in continuing. Once you’ve done that, re-enter the conversation they were wanting to have.


👋 Reach out if you’ve practiced this sort of thing on your team, and let me know how it went! Reach out to your lead if they practice this sort of thing, and you appreciate them for it