Trust in Business: If You Can’t Trust Me, Why Did You Hire Me?

This question is often asked by employees, mostly because good management practices are not prevalent in American society, and most are not taught in business schools either.  (That’s the reason I write these blog articles – Tim.)  Managers who were not properly trained or who simply haven’t the right personality, principles, and understandings for the job will not understand the importance of trust, or when it is most effective to give an employee the authority and autonomy needed to carry out necessary work.  Micromanagement – overly close supervision of employees – makes them think they are not trusted to do the work they were hired for, and results in diminished respect for the manager and reduced loyalty to the company.  It also wastes both the manager’s and employee’s time in needless communications often including unnecessarily effort-consuming details.  It’s is intuitively clear that lack of trust has a negative impact on company profits, but how does it happen and what can we do about it?

Smart managers recognize the value of trust, and the high cost of not trusting their subordinates.  Many companies have recognized the existence of teams and team efforts in their organizations, and promoted teams as effective working units.  Teams require trust to work well, however, and if it is not there the benefits of team-style functioning are lost.  Imagine if a football quarterback had to check individually with certain players before every play to make sure they understood their assignments.  The game would go a lot slower (if it was possible at all with all the “delay of game” penalties that would result).  The huddle should be all that is needed, if the team is properly constituted and prepared, for every player to understand their assignment and have all they need to carry it out successfully. 

There are many non-verbal ways trust can be destroyed.  One company I worked for was so security conscious that they had automatic cameras scanning the office areas.  This made all of us feel like the company didn’t trust us, and made most of us needlessly self-conscious .  It seemed like a waste of company resources as well as an invasion of our personal space.  One never knew when someone from the security and HR office might find something to question or report to our bosses and, though it never happened that I know of, that was no consolation – the message was still clear. 

There are many examples of loss due to management mistrust.  At other companies my bosses sometimes required too-frequent one-on-one meetings with their people along with detailed activity reports and logs of employees’ daily activities, wasting a lot of valuable work time and decreasing our productivity.  One company had a manager somewhere above us who was apparently so convinced that employees were slackers and would goof off and cheat the company when possible that they required signed commitments from employees as to when they would arrive for work or leave at the end of the day, even though many had long commutes that could change their time of arrival by a half hour or more without warning.  Another company refused to publish an organization chart or building maps that would tell where people had their desks and work areas, supposedly for security reasons, which caused a lot of waste every day as people who didn’t know who to talk to or where to find someone had to ask, and ask, and ask other employees until they could find the person they needed to see.  In every case the cost of lost productivity was invisible to management, though I guarantee it was included in the bottom line, depressing the workers and costing the shareholders needlessly.

I’m sure you have experienced the effects of lack of trust.  I keep hoping the terrible lack of savvy I’ve experienced from American business managers is less prevalent in the rest of the world, but I recognize that some of it stems from basic human nature, people being put into jobs they’re not suited for, and simple lack of good management training and role models.  Much of American business culture is based on the precepts of our individualist national culture, the “cowboy” myth that says the frontier was tamed by individuals and not communities, and our near-cult of celebrity and stardom.  The reality, however, always turns out to be that those “cowboys” would have accomplished little without the support of their communities, and media stars would be nothing without the efforts of teams of experts in a variety of fields, all working together to enable their performances.

Understanding and study are needed to avoid the distrust problem.  So when you get that nagging feeling that your boss doesn’t trust you, or when they micromanage you and you see them needlessly wasting their own resources on overly close supervision or other wastes of time, remember that trust and the selection of managers for their ability to enable others are not part of the curriculum in business schools, nor are they generally part of American cultural thinking about business management.  The pursuit of true management savvy must be carried out as a lifetime study with, most probably, only a little aid from business schools, and the manager who takes the time for introspection and learning about such topics will generally head a much more effective organization.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and experiences.  – Tim

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