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(I feel a bit silly asking this as I'm several years into a professional career already, hence the throwaway account.)

As an employee in a company, how can I know which decisions/courses of action can be taken by myself and which ones need to be escalated or approved? (I'm asking generally how to approach this in the workplace, not about a specific company or position, as it's something I keep coming across in different companies).

I've been bitten by this in the past, as I took action to resolve a situation that was somewhat "outside my lane" but necessary in the moment, and was chastised for it. Other times I've had responses from bosses where I felt like "why are you asking me this? Just get on and do it" like it was a lack of initiative.

Another example: a previous manager (team lead) of mine wanted us to move towards using a new "technique" that was part of the systems we had already (so no additional costs, infrastructure etc needed - we literally had everything we needed ready to go, it was just a case of changing our development practices) and it didn't affect anyone outside our team. I would have thought a team/tech lead would have standing to decide that, but their boss (an overall Development Manager) needed a business case to be brought to her, and then it went all the way up the chain for approval! And I've no idea why exec-level people need to get involved with trivia like that.

Conversely, I had another manager (in a different company) who took the "better to ask for forgiveness than permission" approach and would instruct us to go ahead with whatever his latest initiative was. Then it would be rescinded -- presumably because a higher-up found out and didn't like us taking that direction.

These were things like a specific technical solution or approach, not something like "handling a client issue due to an outage" for example.

More concretely I'm asking:

  • as an employee, how can I know which decisions/courses of action I can take myself, and which ones need to be escalated or get approval (As a general approach - I realize I can ask about specific situations as they come up, but that doesn't solve the general problem).
  • (if applicable) as a manager, would you see someone "risk averse" about decisions (due to past experience mostly) escalating decisions to you, as something like a lack of initiative?

NB. If escalating a question I'm not asking the boss an open ended "what should I do?". I already have something I'd intend/recommend to do, and it just needs approval.

It applies up the chain as well, like how would my boss (Team Lead etc) know whether they can approve it or if it needs to go up to their manager?

I feel like I'm missing a fundamental piece of business etiquette here, and I'm too embarrassed to bring this up IRL as I feel like everyone else already knows or has an intuition for this!

  • 3
    Don't feel silly. This is Stack Exchange - there are no stupid questions. – Sean Jul 7 at 4:27
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As an employee in a company, how can I know which decisions/courses of action can be taken by myself and which ones need to be escalated or approved?

You can work with your manager, to make sure you fully understand your role - the responsibilities, expectations, and limits.

Every company is different. Every manager is different. Every process is different. The only way you'll know for sure is to ask.

And as @FrankHopkins wisely points out, roles are flexible. You can always ask to expand your role if you wish or reduce parts of your role if you wish, by discussing your ideas with your manager and getting them to agree.

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as an employee, how can I know which decisions/courses of action I can take myself, and which ones need to be escalated or get approval (As a general approach

You likely have more decision-making authority than you expect, and it will grow as you demonstrate your decision-making abilities. Some general rules of thumb that balance caution with optimism about your authority:

  1. If you have clearly been put in charge of something, you can and should make decisions about it (and routinely brief your colleagues/supervisor). E.g., you're the project leader for a new system implementation.
  2. If you are ultimately responsible for the results of an effort, you can and should make decisions. E.g., you're responsible for developing an internal system to collect employee feedback.
  3. If your role is clearly expected to be an expert or authority on a topic, you can and should make decisions about it. E.g., if you're expected to be the most knowledgable person about database architecture, make decisions about database architecture.
  4. If you're working on a team, and others are resisting making a decision, step up and call the shots. Even if authority is shared between individuals, making a decision (even if the decision is to do nothing) is always better than prolonged ambiguity.
  5. Always engage the relevant stakeholders before and after you've made a decision. Ask for opinions from individuals who will be affected by a decision and brief them on the decision once you've made it.
  6. Expect and adapt to feedback about your decision making. Colleagues will let you know when you ventured outside of your decision-making territory or failed to make a decision when it was expected. Listen and adapt.

(if applicable) as a manager, would you see someone "risk averse" about decisions (due to past experience mostly) escalating decisions to you, as something like a lack of initiative?

Yes, this is an undesirable behavior. A reasonable manager wants team members who will own their work - steering it with decisions and taking ownership of results, good or bad. Autonomy (making decisions on your own) + collaboration (engaging others as appropriate) is much more desirable.

  • All of the bold makes this hard to read. – Cypher Jul 10 at 0:41

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