The "Mother May I" Syndrome

Have you heard about the “Mother May I?” Syndrome? Maybe not, but chances are that you have experienced this.

The “Mother May I” Syndrome is when seemingly nobody on your staff can do anything without your approval or opinion.

EVERYONE is constantly hammering you with questions or challenges that only you can solve. When you spend all day solving other people’s problems, you don’t get a chance to actually get much accomplished.

PSSST. Here’s a Secret

This is your own fault.

You’ve trained your staff to behave this way because you have never challenged them or trained them or empowered them to think on their own.

When everything connects to you, that’s not efficient. Wouldn’t it be nice to have trained, smart, talented, and self-motivated people working for you for a change?

Let’s fix that “Mother May I” problem. Here are some steps for you:

Look for Patterns

Pull out a notepad, write on a whiteboard, or create a new spreadsheet. Whatever tool you use, start jotting down instances where you get pulled into the decision-making matrix.

  • “What do you think about…?”
  • “Where do I find…?”
  • “Can we do…?”
  • “How should we…?”

Here’s what I want you to find out. Are these legitimate questions where your staff member has not been trained or empowered to make a decision about something?

Of course, you should help people, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

A good chunk of the time, your staff knows the answer to whatever they are asking. However, they know through experience that they HAVE TO BRING IT TO YOU due to your unwillingness to empower them, train them, or even ask them for their opinion.

In fact, I’ll bet that if you asked them, they know the answer. But they are unwilling to go out on a limb with it because they are scared to make a mistake or openly voice their solution. The fear of being wrong is stronger than their desire to be efficient with their work.

Which is why they are constantly asking for their “Mother’s” permission.

Problems Are Opportunity. Recurring Problems Are Not

I know you’ve read the phrase “problems are an opportunity” before. I think that’s true.

When a problem emerges, as leaders this is a wonderful opportunity to make a change for the better if we just have the courage to do something. Digging in and changing a process, or finding a new solution is what makes us tick.

Recurring problems though, indicate that the real problem is you. Challenges that keep happening always mean that whatever you are doing about it isn’t working. If you want a different result, you have to do things differently.

Problematic patterns are resolved by scaling interventions. Dig in and fix the problem at the source. Not by insisting that someone bring you a sample every time so “Mother” can inspect it.

Look to your processes and employee training to ensure correctness.

The Need to Fix

You are in charge. The boss. No one is disputing that.

And being in charge often means that you feel that you have to flex your boss muscles. When there is a problem, you are going to fix it. After all, that’s why you are in charge, right?

That’s what bosses do.

But here’s the weird thing. The more that you step in and fix things, the more that you are expected to step in and fix things. It is a circle of doom.

Instead, think about this notion: Expect competent people to solve their own problems. Get out of their way.

Do It Better

As a leader, your main focus should be developing and empowering your staff. Did you or did you not hire the right people to work for you?

  • Can you trust them to solve a problem on their own?
  • Have you trained them on how to research and find the answer to their problem?
  • What are you doing, on an ongoing basis, to empower them to creatively think and problem solve?
  • Do you openly celebrate staff members that change things and increase efficiency in their work?

The next time someone walks up with a problem for “Mother” to solve try asking questions instead:

“What do you think?”

“How would you do it?”

“What have you tried?”

“Why do you think this happened?”

“Where should you look for the answer?”

Your Staff Knows More Than You Think

My guess is that they know the answer to whatever they are asking you about. Their experience though may have taught them to seek approval before proceeding to the next step and to not trust themselves.

That is a dangerous notion, as that leads to stagnant thinking and the “Mother May I” syndrome. When you are the gatekeeper that everyone has to go to before they can proceed to the next step, your time will never be your own.

What’s Eating Your Time?

Journal or document your day. How often are you being pulled away from what you need to do because of situations like we’ve been describing?

I know what you are going to say. “But Marshall, nobody does it right. To ensure quality I need to double-check everything.”

Do you?

What if you installed better processes and guardrails and trained your staff? At Toyota, do you think Akio Toyoda is on the plant floor running around solving everyone’s problem?

No. He has bigger, more impactful decisions to make. Employees are empowered to solve their challenges.

That’s why Toyota runs on their famous 14 principles:

Section 1 – Long Term Philosophy

One: Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.

  • People need a purpose to find motivation and establish goals.

Section 2 – The Right Processes Will Produce The Right Results

Two: Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface. Work processes are redesigned to eliminate waste through the process of continuous improvement. There are seven types of waste:

  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Unnecessary Transport
  • Overprocessing
  • Excess Inventory
  • Motion
  • Defects

Three: Use a “pull” system to avoid over-production.

  • This is a method where a process signals its predecessor that more material is needed.
  • The pull system produces only the required material after the subsequent operation signals a need for it.

Four: Level out the workload.

  • This helps achieve the goal of minimizing waste, not overburdening people or the equipment, and not creating uneven production levels.

Five: Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.

  • Quality takes precedence.
  • Any employee in the Toyota Production System has the authority to stop the process to signal a quality issue.

Six: Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation of continuous improvement and employee empowerment.

  • Although Toyota has a bureaucratic system, the way that is implemented allows for continuous improvement from the people affected by that system.
  • It empowers the employee to aid in the growth and improvement of the company.

Seven: Use visual control so no problems are hidden. Included in this principle is the 5S Program, which are steps that are used to make all workspaces efficient and productive, help people share work stations, and reduce time looking for needed tools and improve the work environment. The 5S program includes:

Eight: Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.

  • Technology is pulled to manufacturing, not pushed to manufacturing.

Section 3 – Develop Your People

Nine: Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.

  • Without constant attention, the principles will fade.
  • The principles have to be ingrained, it must be the way one thinks.
  • Employees must be educated and trained.
  • You need to maintain a learning organization.

Ten: Develop exceptional people and teams that follow your company’s philosophy.

  • Teams should consist of 4-5 people and numerous management tiers.
  • Success is based on the team, not the individual.

Eleven: Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.

  • Toyota treats suppliers much like they treat their employees, challenging them to do better and helping them achieve it.
  • Toyota provides cross-functioning teams to help suppliers discover and fix problems so that they can become a stronger, better supplier.

Section 4 – Continuously Solving Root Problems Drives Organizational Learning

Twelve: Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation. Toyota managers are expected to “go-and-see” operations. Without experiencing the situation firsthand, managers will not have an understanding of how it can be improved. Furthermore, managers use Tadashi Yamashima’s ten management principles as a guideline:

  • Always keep the final target in mind.
  • Clearly assign tasks to yourself and others
  • Think and speak on verified proven information and data.
  • Take full advantage of the wisdom and experiences of others to send, gather, and discuss information.
  • Share information with others in a timely fashion.
  • Always report, inform, and consult in a timely manner.
  • Analyze and understand shortcomings in your capabilities in a measurable way.
  • Relentless strive to conduct kaizen activities.
  • Think outside the box, or beyond common sense and standard rules.
  • Always be mindful of protecting your safety and health.

Thirteen: Make decisions slowly, by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly. The following are decision parameters:

  • Find out what is really going on (go and see) to test.
  • Determine the underlying cause.
  • Consider a broad range of alternatives.
  • Build consensus on the resolution.
  • Use efficient communication tools.

Fourteen: Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement. The process of becoming a learning organization involves criticizing every aspect of what one does. The general problem-solving technique to determine the root cause of a problem includes:

  • Initial problem perception.
  • Clarify the problem.
  • Locate area or point of cause.
  • Investigate root cause.
  • Countermeasure.
  • Evaluate.
  • Standardize.

Stop the “Mother May I” Syndrome

Toyota doesn’t run this way, and you don’t have to either.

Work on empowering your staff with training, development, standardizing processes, and more clarity.

Take things one thing at a time and simply start by asking more questions to your staff. Take time to identify what’s going on and begin working on getting things turned around.

You can do this!


“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” – Grace Hopper

“Giving yourself permission to lose guarantees a loss.” – Pat Riley

“Permission marketing is marketing without interruptions.” – Seth Godin