By Claus Raasted
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has quite a few definitions of the words “trust” and “faith”. Two of them are particularly interesting in the world of organizations.
trust: to place confidence in : rely on
faith: complete trust
Without trust, little else matters.
Without trust and clear communication, there is a breakdown of relationships at all levels: from colleague/peer relations, to leader-employee interaction and strained business partnerships. We know this. Each and every one of us makes choices every day on when to extend our trust – and when not to. We trust our cars not to overheat, our restaurants not to poison us and our internet connections not to betray us (though we know that they might sell our info to someone).
Society runs on trust. Humanity breathes it.
We even trust complete strangers to have our best interests at heart when we are lost and ask for directions, or when we accept help from someone offering to help carry our luggage up a challenging staircase.
We trust. It allows us to function.
And yet, when we put on our organization hats, that trust seems to become a rare commodity. Suddenly, even the smallest of things must be signed off on. The most simple task must be double-checked and the most trivial decision makes its way to the top.
Not everywhere. Not all the time. But way too often.
I have seen first-hand how absurd this can get. My first big job in the Middle East involved us bringing a 38-person international team in and being on the ground for over a month. I still look back at that time with fond memories, but also cannot help but shake my head at some of the things I witnessed.
And I was not alone.
Our entire team saw and experienced things where they had to pinch themselves to be certain that they were awake. Not because anyone was deliberately mean or obstructionist or thoughtless – no, because of a pervasive culture of “push decisions upwards”.
At its best, it looks like this:
A manager, (private sector, public sector, semi-gov’t, it happens everywhere) receives a task from the boss and thinks of ways to do it. Then, they come up with a plan for how to solve it and gather a team to carry out that plan.
The subordinates are briefed and told EXACTLY what to do, and they are told EXACTLY when to do it and they are told EXACTLY what to deliver for approval. At least, that’s when things are good. In reality, sometimes these briefings are all but precise and employees are left with confused ideas and endless mail threads with hordes of people cc’ed for no obvious reason. But when the system works, the manager provides exact specifications.
This is a system of command and control. It is a system of approvals rather than mandates. The problem is that not only is this way of doing things slow – it also leaves the manager overwhelmed, overworked and over-involved.
Because every time the manager asks to see something “for approval”, they must spend time on it. That means spending time on looking at it, understanding it, and coming up with changes to make it better. And next comes communicating those changes to the people below them, and – when the changes have been implemented – going through the same process again.
This doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but in reality, it’s extremely inefficient.
Consider a common example:
A reorganization has taken place and people need to be assigned new workstations and new office routines. Desks need to be moved, chairs need to be bought and meeting rooms need to be made ready for their new use. Water coolers need to be placed, cleaning routines established and signage has to be changed. A million small decisions need to be taken, and they need to be taken yesterday.
The classic command-and-control manager appoints people to take care of all of this, and they come to him with reports, updates, proposals and decisions. There’s a suggestion that Ahmed and Omar don’t sit next to each other, because of a personal conflict that hasn’t yet been resolved, a suggestion that the old cubicle walls be replaced with new ones of a more sound-absorbing material and a proposal on reducing the amount of printers in meeting rooms due to a sustainability initiative, that was started by someone in Marketing.
All of these decisions end on the manager’s desk. The amount of micro-meetings, two-minute-hallway-discussions and I-just-need-your-input-on-this minutiae is mind boggling – and that’s on top of the regular workload, which might be heavy to begin with.
Frustration creeps in. Annoyance. Exhaustion.
How can they suggest fresh green plants in the meetings and plastic ones in the lobby? Who thinks it would be a good idea to have Ahmed put in charge of that team after that thing he failed at 8 months ago? Why do they come to me with unsuitable suggestions?
“I better double check to make sure they don’t make mistakes.”
And as the level of fear and psychological discomfort rises, what is the logical outcome?
Even more fear of decisions among the lower ranks. More micro-managing and control. Trust levels – already low to begin with – drop dramatically, with every failure and every bad decision. And in the office of the troubled manager sits someone, who is doing their best to keep afloat in a sea of incompetence of their own creation.
And, the person that the manager answers to is even worse off
So, what is the alternative? How can we change this unfortunate state of events?
The answer is simple, but it’s also hard.
By mandates, instead of approvals. By providing goals and missions and vision and accepting that things won’t get done exactly as we’d like – but they will get done. By empowering and supporting instead of commanding and controlling.
Some years back, when I was the CEO of a company with ~50 people spread across 10 countries, and we had to move our main office, I wasn’t involved in the move at all. Our Danish manager took care of that. The mandate she got from me was simple:
“Take care of the move – just tell me where my new office is, and come to me if you have questions. The other owners and I trust that you’ll do a great job.”
She didn’t have any questions, and my new office was lovely.
And that manager?
After we split the company in three, she became the CEO of one of the branches, and while I’ve moved on to other ventures, I still have an ownership share. I don’t interfere, though, because I have great trust in her ability and her character.
As a leader, passing on responsibilities and trusting employees to be innovative and make decisions isn’t an easy choice, yet the workplace efficiency will drastically improve, as will psychological safety at work, a sense of belonging and the company loyalty that this entails. By trusting and empowering employees to take charge of their development, they will be able to learn new skills and be more resilient and versatile in the future.
I don’t expect miracles. But I’m a strong believer in having faith in people.