I’ve been blogging recently about the evolution of talent management: where it has come from and where it needs to go. There are a number of important changes that define how talent management is evolving, but probably the most important change we are seeing is that organizations are getting better at trusting and empowering their employees to do the right thing. There’s still a long way for many organizations to go, but it’s extremely heartening to see some shining examples of companies that trust their employees and the monumentally positive impact that this has on employee engagement.
Google is one of these shining examples of a company that trusts and empowers its employees. In his book Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People of Operations, explains that “Google operates on the belief that people are fundamentally good,” and the leaders at Google trust and empower their employees to do the right thing. This sounds so simple, yet many companies seem to operate on the belief that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing, and all sorts of controls are needed to prevent bad behavior. When companies like Google have shown the clear benefits of trusting and empowering employees, why is it still so hard for most companies to do?
The benefits of trust and empowerment in the workplace
There is substantial research linking trust with improved employee engagement and organizational performance. One such study, Trust that Binds: The Impact of Collective Felt Trust on Organizational Performance, showed that employees who felt that their managers trusted them demonstrated better sales and customer service performance.
Similarly, it has been repeatedly shown that empowering employees – giving them the freedom to make decisions and get things done – has all kinds of benefits. Empowered employees are more productive, because they can quickly make decisions themselves instead of spending lots of time seeking approval from others. Empowered employees are more innovative, because they have the freedom to think outside of the box and come up with better ways to do things. And of course, empowered employees are happier: who doesn’t prefer having freedom in their work vs. being micromanaged?
But if the benefits of trusting and empowering your employees are so clear and obvious, why are there still so many organizations where it’s lacking?
Why is there such a lack of trust?
There are countless examples of organizations not trusting their employees. Company leaders not allowing employees to work from home because they don’t think employees will work hard when they can’t be physically seen (even though research shows the opposite). Company policies requiring manager approval for even the smallest business expenses. Managers asking employees for detailed daily progress updates so they can micromanage how employees spend their time. Small business owners not going on vacation because they don’t trust their employees to mind the store while they’re away. And so on, and so on.
Why does lack of trust seem to be the default for so many company leaders? Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature for many people to be distrustful, even when the facts are telling them it’s to their benefit to trust people. That irrational, emotional part of people makes it difficult to trust. Trusting people requires a certain degree of vulnerability, and this is difficult for a lot of people. After all, if I trust you to do the right thing, and you take advantage of that trust by harming me financially or otherwise, my natural reaction might be to stop trusting anyone, for fear of being hurt again. So, because of a few incidents of employees behaving badly, the result is often that no employees are trusted.
And because trust is a necessary prerequisite for empowerment, leaders who don’t trust their employees will give them as little empowerment as possible. They will resort to lots of rules, required approvals, excessive tracking and monitoring, etc. Employees, in turn, knowing their leaders don’t trust them, will likely feel resentful of that mistrust, unhappy at work, less productive, and more likely to behave in a way that is not in the best interests of the company (e.g. taking extra sick days). And so the lack of trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What can companies do to break out of this vicious spiral of distrust?
How leaders can build a culture of trust
Companies with a lack of trust need to focus on changing the culture…from a culture of distrust to a culture of trust. Culture change is hard…it will take time…and it absolutely needs to come from the top. If a company wants to successfully build a culture of trust, company leaders must work on setting aside their predisposition to distrust people and demonstrating that they trust people through their words and actions. No easy task, to be sure. But luckily, companies like Google, Zappos, Southwest and 3M have successfully built a culture of trust, and others can learn from their examples.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. As Laszlo Bock puts it, “If you believe human beings are fundamentally good, act like it.” While many companies seem to operate under a “guilty until proven innocent” premise that trust must be earned, companies with a culture of trust take the opposite approach. They assume people are good and can be trusted, and they act accordingly. A culture of trust has to start with the leaders taking the view that people are fundamentally good, and demonstrating this mindset every day through their words and actions.
Occasionally, even good people do bad things, and when that happens, company leaders must address the bad behavior and let the employee know it won’t be tolerated. If the bad behavior continues or if it’s serious enough, the employee may need to be fired. You can’t maintain a culture of trust if people see that bad behavior is allowed to go unchecked.
Hire great people. It will be much easier for a company’s leaders to trust their employees when they have great employees. Of course, talent acquisition is an extensive and complicated topic of its own, but it bears mentioning because hiring great people is a fundamental part of having a culture of trust. The key is to hire people who not only have outstanding skills and experience, but most importantly, people who fit your culture. If your goal is to have a culture of trust, where leaders and employees act in a trusting manner, then it’s important to hire people who are naturally trusting of others.
Similarly, if you have existing employees who are inherently untrusting, and it’s clear they don’t fit well in a culture of trust, then the best course of action may be to let those people go. Keeping untrusting people employed will undermine even the best efforts to build a culture of trust.
Zappos is a company that is well known for its culture of trust, and that starts with hiring great people. Zappos has a unique hiring process that is very heavily focused on cultural fit. What makes it unique? Instead of responding to a job post (there are no job posts), candidates create an online profile and are encouraged to include a video cover letter to “show your true colors.” Then during the interviews, candidates are not only interviewed about their skills and experience, but they are asked several questions to determine whether they fit with Zappos’ core values. Zappos is known for asking off-the-wall interview questions to assess cultural fit, such as “If you could be a super hero, what would you be and why?”
Be transparent. A key part of trusting employees is sharing information with them. A company can demonstrate trust in its employees by sharing sensitive company information with them and keeping them in the loop on important company decisions. Of course, some information can’t be widely shared for legal, ethical or other reasons, but company leaders should continually challenge themselves to share as much information with employees as possible.
Google, for example, shares the results of their employee surveys with all employees. And they don’t just share a high level summary; they allow employees to filter on any view of the employee survey data they want. Google employees – or Googlers, as they are called – not only get a clear view of the employee survey results, but they clearly see how the company leaders are acting on those results. Contrast this with many other companies, where the norm is to guard employee survey data like Fort Knox, and employees rarely if ever see any post-survey communications telling them how their input is being used to drive change. It’s clear to see that by being as transparent as possible and letting employees know they have a real voice in the company, Google is building a whole lot of trust.
Empower your employees to do the right thing…then get out of the way. One of the clearest and best ways to demonstrate trust in your employees is to empower them…give them the freedom to work how/when/where they want, freedom to make important decisions, freedom to try new ideas, even freedom to make mistakes. As long as employees demonstrate strong performance and deliver outstanding results, it shouldn’t matter if they leave early every Monday for a yoga class. It shouldn’t matter if they choose to allocate some of their time to working on a side project. It shouldn’t matter if they want to work remotely. What’s critically important is that employees understand they are accountable for results. As long as they deliver those results, it’s up to them how they want to manage their work.
Southwest Airlines is a great example of a company that empowers its employees to do the right thing for the customer. It’s not just about flight attendants singing and telling jokes during flights. Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, telephone service representatives...all employees have the authority to make decisions about how to best serve the customer. Endless examples of empowered employees abound, such as the time a flight attendant gave a passenger a bottle of champagne and let him use the intercom so he could propose to his girlfriend during the flight.
3M empowers its employees through its 15 Percent Time Program, where employees are allowed to spend up to 15% of their working time on their own projects. 3M also encourages its employees to take risks by allowing them to make mistakes. In the words of former 3M President William McKnight, “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.” Empowering employees to take risks by allowing them to fail is one of the fundamental drivers of innovation. It’s no coincidence that risk-averse companies that punish employees for failure are generally some of the least innovative companies.
So many companies expend enormous amounts of effort to control employees and limit their freedoms, supposedly in an effort to suppress bad behavior. Back in the days of the Industrial Revolution, where most people worked on a manufacturing line, control-heavy micromanagement may have served companies well. But those days are gone, and in today’s innovation- and service-driven economy, a culture of distrust is extremely harmful. Not only can controls backfire by incenting employees to behave badly in some cases, but implementing organizational controls is very costly. There are the financial costs of the labor and technology for extensive tracking and monitoring. There are the lost productivity costs of reviews and approvals. And worst of all, there are the decreased employee engagement costs of working in a culture of distrust. If only companies would take steps to replace many of these controls with a culture of trust, work would be simpler, faster, less expensive, more meaningful and more fun!
Photo credit: Pixabay