10 min read

Why Does the Printer Jam and Why Doesn’t Anyone Call the IT Department? Creating a Team Culture of Permission

It's a Good Day

It’s Monday. You park your car, put away your sunglasses in the little flip down compartment on the ceiling, and grab your laptop bag and coffee cup (we all need a little jet fuel). For just a moment, you notice the sun coming up and you walk into work thinking, today’s a good day, for a good day. It sounds a little cliché, but it feels like it could be true.  You’ve arrived before your staff, and you smile as you boot up your computer, ready for good day. Time to knock out a few emails before the hustle of the day.

1st email: You have 10 people who still need to complete their annual online learning.

2nd email: Staffing analysis due by the end of the day.

3rd email: The ice maker in the break room is still broken.

4th email: Person A is upset that person B is not doing their fair share of the work. Person A requests a meeting ASAP.

5th email: Senior Leadership wants to meet to discuss team morale and turnover.

It’s only been 15 minutes and already you feel your neck muscles tightening with stress. More coffee, definitely need more coffee. After a huge gulp of liquid, that is way too hot to drink, you decide that there is little to no good news in your inbox, and think, maybe rounding on the staff will be better than the 143 emails that are still unread.

The first person you see lights up and heads straight for you, saying, “I am glad I caught you! Can I show you what the printer is doing? It’s been jamming every few minutes.” You nod, and walk together towards the front of the office asking her whether anyone called IT yet? Without answering your question, she proceeds to tell you that the printer has been doing this for months and she’s not sure why someone hasn’t done anything about it. A bit exasperated, you tell her that you didn’t know the printer had been malfunctioning and that you can help her resolve it. The large machine has quite a few pages jammed in the side compartment, but finally documents come whooshing out, mission accomplished. A buzz from the phone in your pocket tells you that your first meeting is about to begin. So much for my good morning. You rush back to your office and dive into the next few meetings. But this issue with the printer is frustrating and keeps popping back into your brain throughout the day. They must not know the number for IT off the top of their heads, you think.  Before you head home for the day, you print off a cheat sheet on a bright orange paper, tape it up next to the printer, there, that should do the trick!

Why Do Work Printers Always Jam? And, Why Doesn’t Anybody Call IT?

The next morning, without fail, a different employee calls your office to tell you that the printer is jamming aggaaaain.

“Has anyone called IT?”


You think for a moment, maybe today is not a good day for a good day.  But then you quickly stop yourself from going down that negative rabbit hole and simply get down to solving the problem.

On the way out of the office that day, you stop by the employee who helped you with the printer fiasco the day before and ask her, “Why doesn’t anybody call IT?” She looks at you, and you can sense that she is a little afraid to answer. With a bit more coaxing she shares, “I didn’t know I could, I thought I would need permission, but I hate to bother my supervisor with this when we’re all so busy.”  Permission! You try really hard to not make a face, thank her, and head out the door. On the short walk to your car you feel confused, angry, but determined to solve this “permission” problem.

Teaching Staff to Solve Problems…is a Problem

The staff in this story were clearly afraid of getting in trouble, whether for calling IT without permission, or bothering management with their printer issues. And this fear was beginning to slowly and silently affect everyone’s work.

Staff at every level deserve to feel a sense of joy in their work. They should be empowered to creatively solve problems and be proud of their contributions. They deserve opportunities to be critical thinkers to feel autonomous and to be utilized at a high-level at points in their day…we all know some work will always be unglamorous.

I once had an employee tell me, “Lisa, sometimes I think you believe in me, more than I believe in myself.” She told me that the three tasks I had given her earlier that day, were too important for her role. It had been a busy morning and I was thinking about thirty-thousand other things, yet what she said made me stop. She was in an entry-level role, sure. But she had proved herself to be incredibly capable. I looked at her and said, “Angie, you deserve to do awesomely wicked things, you deserve the moon, and stars, and anything you desire beyond. Why wouldn’t I give you hard yet important things to do?” She smiled and said, “Oh, Lisa” and walked out of my office. Now, what does Angie have to do with our broken printer?

The printer issue is one of the most common daily dilemmas that teams face. It is a small, yet symbolic, representation of how unconsciously dis-empowered staff can feel. It took me three broken printers and a year of time before I asked my team members why they don’t call IT. And guess what? They all said something to the effect of, “I didn’t want to get in trouble, do something wrong, or last time when I didn’t get “permission,” I was scolded”. Through previous experiences they’d learned to hold back. They felt like their permission had been revoked. Even more interesting was that new hires were being told about these situations upon arrival. This “life lesson” was being passed on informally from employee-to-employee as a source of survival, so that newer staff could learn from other’s mistakes before they made their own. Sad, isn’t it?!

Perception is Everything

Whatever the problem is, the culture in your office may give staff at different levels a skewed perception of their own abilities to rise to the issue and take charge. Is this a problem they’re capable of solving? Is it in their lane? Might they get in trouble for stepping out-of-bounds? Each person makes these inferences in a split second, heavily influenced by the wider company culture. But you’ve only hired capable, critical thinking professionals, right? So, why aren’t they able to solve their own problems?

I’ll tell you why…when there is a problem, the first place staff looks is up the ladder. The leaders above them say, “I can fix that,” or “Why are you bothering me with this?” or “What do you suggest?”

I’ll admit, as a young leader I tried each of these approaches. Sometimes, my response depended on how much coffee I’d had that day. But in truth, one of these options is the best, and the most likely to create good ripples throughout your team.

Give Your Team the Power of Permission

The dictionary uses words like consent and authorization to describe permission.

I read an article in the Harvard Business Review once, about how our brains are hooked on being right. We will defend our positions, push back, and even have physical reactions to the thought of not being right.

Bingo! The printer issue is about employees being right in their ability to predict what would happen if they called IT. Bad things will happen if I call IT, therefore I can’t or shouldn’t or won’t.

Now imagine, for a moment, a world where there are no guilty consciences, life lessons that are passed down are good ones, and people take quick action. They call IT!! Imagine a world where permission is given often and freely. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve worked for organizations as small as 30 people and as big as 30,000. In every setting, leaders talk about the need to be innovative, flexible, agile. Yet everyday, most employees feel that they are swimming upstream.

If you are a manager whose team seems complacent or unmotivated, you might start by asking yourself, have I spent the time learning about their past experiences? How can I get to the bottom of why they don’t take initiative or do the things that seem obvious to me?

Our job as leaders is to give our teams permission to tackle the problems in front of them. This takes more than assigning them the task, or putting it in their job description. It requires that we build a culture of permission where each person feels empowered to think critically and move forward using their best judgement.

Maybe you’re hesitant because you’ve seen this go wrong before. Maybe you sent a promising young employee out to sea and found out that actually, they couldn’t swim. This will happen. But if you’re confident in the capabilities of your team members, there’s no greater service you can do than to show them that. I tell all my teams that they should try and solve their own problems, but that they must have a good justification for the steps they take. If they have strong justification, I back them every time, even if what they did ends up being a mistake.

Through mistakes we grow, and we build trust. And this is the ‘life lesson’ I want to be passed around my office. This is how we get people to call IT when the printer jams…

  • Author: Lisa Even

    I’m on a mission to connect with 1,000,000 people! Why? Because connection is where great leadership development, process design, and generational connectivity occur.

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I help leaders expand their impact; this is what I call having good ripple effect. I teach front-line leaders how to enhance team culture; I call this cleaning up the team eco-system.