I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Management - Trust

The word trust is for company life what love is for the movie industry: so much used and so often abused that most people develop for it the same self-protecting indifference that nurses and doctors must have for blood.

I checked out three different dictionaries, one Australian (The Macquarie Dictionary), one English (Collins Dictionary of the English Language), and one American (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). Their first definitions of trust sound as follows: "Reliance on the integrity, justice, etc., of a person, or on some quality or attribute of a thing, confidence"; "Reliance on and confidence in the truth, worth, reliability, etc., of a person or thing; faith"; "Firm reliance; confident belief; faith".

The only two words all those definitions have in common are reliance and faith. But then, how do you reconcile the trust that many managers claim to have in their employees with their obsessive checking, reviewing, verifying, controlling? The answer is very simple: you cannot. To put it bluntly: you can't have the cake and eat it too! The more closely you need to check on what somebody does, the less you can claim to trust her integrity, quality, and reliability.

Some years ago, I worked for the Swiss subsidiary of a large telecommunication company. Engineers still had to stamp cards four times a day to record their working hours, and managers were supposed to check the cards and sign them at the end of each month. As soon as I took over the responsibility of a software development department, I called everybody in and told them: "As you know, I am responsible for ensuring that your stamp-cards are correctly filled in before passing them on to the administration department. I find this equivalent to treating you as children, rather than responsible professionals. Therefore, I shall not check any card. At the end of each month, I will just see that you have filled them in, sign them up, and pass them on. Please don't put me in a difficult situation with the bean counters. Further, if you want to take half a day or one full day off work, please do not ask me. Let me know before you go, but don't wait for my approval, because you are not going to get any. A note on my desk or an email will do. You are the best person to know whether you can take time off without compromising the project you are working on. Who am I to decide the importance of what you have to do at home? Aren't we supposed to be responsible adults?"

I was strongly criticised by MY superior for taking such a stand but, ultimately, how and whether I checked on my people was my call.

In two occasions the administration detected mistakes in one of the cards and sent it back to me, but that was small price to pay for showing to my engineers that I trusted them. The guy whose card was sent back (the same person in both occasions) felt that he had let me down and was very sorry to have caused me problems.

I was the first manager in a company of almost two thousand people to challenge that regulation. The stamp-cards were abolished a couple of years later, totally independently of my stand, but I could have not waited for it to happen. For me, it was a matter of principle.

Anyhow, the engineers were so used to being kept on a short leash, that some found it difficult to adjust to the newly gained freedom. In several occasions, people came to me and asked me whether I thought they could take the next day off. "You just want to shy away from your responsibility", I always replied. "If you have to ask me whether you can stay at home, it probably means that you shouldn't, and you know it. I am definitely not going to leave you off the hook. Freedom always comes with responsibility and this is entirely your call". You should have seen their faces... They had to grow up and couldn't go anymore to 'daddy' and ask for a favour!

After a while, everybody got accustomed to working that way and took it for granted that it wasn't the boss's task to check on people.

Obviously, if I had been inconsistent with my statements and checked the cards, I would have lost all credibility and, with it, the trust of my people. And this brings me to a crucial question concerning reciprocal trust: can an untrusting person be trustworthy? I would tend to answer no. People often project onto others what they think or feel true for themselves. This is cheap psychology, but you know that I am right. Then, what does this tell you about a boss who is concerned that you overload your expense claims or spend too much time at the coffee machine?

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