“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.” – Booker T. Washington
Trust is very difficult for most organisations. By their very nature and structures they are set up with hierarchies designed to limit exposure to the potential damage a breach of trust could have on the organisation. This is very understandable. Ultimately all organisations are made up of people and as Abraham Maslow pointed out in his hierarchy of needs; security and protection are only just above physical needs for individuals. Trust means making oneself vulnerable to the impacts of decisions which other people make and this feeds our fear of not having our security and protection needs met.
To counter this vulnerability we build shining edifices of control into our organisations on the mistaken assumption that this mitigates our vulnerability. Of course it’s nonsense. We’re dealing with people here, from the CEO, MD, Chairperson or whoever all the way “down” the organisation heirarchy to the people who service the basic needs of the rest of the workers (almost always the lowest rung of the organisational ladder even though they serve the greatest and most important needs) any of whom can “impact” an organisation by breaching the trust placed in them in a myriad of ways.
Some recent examples of this are the swift exit of Mark Hurd as CEO of HP, whatever the reality of the case proving as the “head” of the organisation that to err is human; that regardless of the position in the hierarchy (the level of trust) a person can make mistakes. Similarly is the case of the Afghan war diaries leaked to Wikileaks. There can hardly be a more control oriented organistion on the planet than the US government and her military forces. The reprecussions of failing to act within that control, or actively subverting it are severe and yet, human beings, driven by other needs make value judgements and act accordingly. If there was ever an example that intimidation and punishment based control doesn’t work this is it.
On the surface these examples hardly make a strong case for placing greater trust in employees I’ll admit but that isn’t the lesson here. The lessons are twofold. In the Hurd case, it’s a stark reminder that hierarchicial control structures are implicitly flawed because of the assumption that the human beings higher up the structure are more trustworthy than those below them. The Wikileaks example shows us that no matter how heavyhanded these controls and the associated severe repercussions of breaching them human beings will make value judgements of their own and act accordingly.
I see this within my own family. Our 2 year old daughter is precocious and very very stubborn. She is also fearless (as most toddlers are). This makes it extremely difficult for her mother and I to “control” her behaviour and sometimes we’re at wits-end when trying to get her not to be naughty or to behave differently. The key realisation we’ve come to is that we can’t realistically control someone who doesn’t understand or recognise the reprecussions of her actions.
Our strategy therefore has been to focus much more on influencing her behaviour than to control it. Where “time outs” were initially about reprecussions for her actions we’ve now changed them to being literally a cool-off period, letting her, and us, calm down enough to discuss the action she’s taken which precipitated it. (OK, so I know this is parenting 101 for some people but it’s all part of a learning curve for us as well as her) This way we hope that by continuously reinforcing the message that “x is not appropriate behaviour” we can influence her towards a more appropriate behaviour pattern. In essence we influence as much as we can but then we have to trust her.
Similarly organisations have to wake up to the fact that control, reprecussions and hierarchys of trust are not going to ensure that their trust can’t be breached. These things have the opposite effect on the human psyche. We rail against the lack of self determination and ultimately we trade these things off against the value judgements we make about what we believe is right.
The ways that organisations seek to justify a lack of trust in their employees is that trust must be earned or that trust has been betrayed in the past. Of course the fallacy here is that trust only needs to be earned if you’re entering the organistion at a certain level. Above that trust is implicit. How many organistions hire a CxO level executive and then don’t trust them to make decisions and have access to sensitive information?
So what do you do to instill trust in your organisation particularly where there isn’t any or there has been a betrayal in the past which makes people feel vulnerable. The answer is that there’s nothing you can do about that. The past and it’s sins are manifest and immutable. All you can do is move forward. Assuming you have a reasonable recruitment discipline your employees, in the main, should share some (or all) of the values and beliefs of the organisation therefore trusting them is not exposing your organisation to much risk. Their value judgements will co-incide with the organisation’s for most things.
What to do if you’re not confident that you’ve selected employees with the values and beliefs of the organisation? Well here’s the thing. Take a leap of faith. Trust them, and let them know they’re trusted. Simply doing that, as Booker T Washington says in the quote heading up this article, few things will “help” them more (and lead them to share your organisations values and goals) than giving them that responsibility and letting them know that they’re trusted. Let go of the preconceptions and betrayals of the past. Look to an emergent future. Trust your people even if you have been burned in the past.
As another of my heros, Cesar Milan often says: “Live in the now!”. Get rid of the fallacy of control and hierarchies of (dis)trust. Create an environment of trust and collaboration and you never know what the future may hold.
The past is gone, the present is but a fleeting moment, there is only the future.