Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy!
Who Do You Trust?
Originally published by The Press Enterprise, fall 2009.
Businesses are havens for abstract rules of trust: Only select employees get keys to the front door. Only employees of a certain rank are given the option of having a laptop so that they can work from home. These rules tell an employee everything they need to know about who a company trusts and who it doesn’t. All too often the line that divides the two groups cuts across the pay scale, with the employees on the higher end of the scale being trusted more than those on the lower end. Wherever that unofficial line of trust is, employees can see it and feel it as if it were a bright red line painted straight through the office.
When we organization first looked at creating a work environment that is anchored by trust, we had no idea how much we would need to change. Prior to starting our current Results-Only Work Environment, we had created a telecommuting policy that we were extremely proud of. For the first time in our organization’s history, we were going to allow employees to work from home. Employees were required to submit a form asking for permission to work from home on a certain day and had to sign off that they understood the rules: they couldn’t work from home more than one day per week; if they missed their telecommuting day for any reason they had to get special permission to make it up on a different day; and they were only permitted to telecommute if they were at a certain level or in a certain type of position. Instead of showing our employees that we trusted them, our attempt at adding flexibility to the work environment only served to highlight our glaring lack of trust. When you create a benefit, the people who notice it the most are the ones who don’t have it.
It was one our non-exempt employees who dramatically changed our organizational perspective on trust. She questioned our telecommuting policy, wondering why the highest paid employees had the option to telecommute and thus save money on gas (which at the time was getting close to five dollars a gallon), while the lowest paid employees were not given any option to work from home. This insightful observation led us to ask ourselves two key questions: was our level of trust in our employees directly connected to how much an employee was paid and what title they had? If so, what reasoning did we use to justify that disparity in trust? The brutal truth was that we did have unfair lines drawn, dividing those we trusted from those we didn’t. And the justification? We had none. The only explanation that could be found was that we had always done it that way.
Why does it matter whether or not companies trust their employees? Employees who are not trusted are less engaged and are more likely to be cynical about everything from organizational change to how much they can trust the leaders of the organization themselves. Employees who are not trusted are less likely to take appropriate risks, test out new ideas, and put themselves on the line to help their company thrive. With survival in business hinging on innovation and an ability to change, creating an environment where employees only feel safe coloring inside the lines can lead to disaster. As William L. McKnight, former CEO of 3M said: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”
Our turning point was implementing a Results-Only Work Environment. The fences came down and the abstract dividing lines between who was trusted and who was not were erased. All of our employees are now trusted to make decisions about when and where they need to work in order to best achieve their results. They are trusted to take as much vacation time as they need, when they need it. They are trusted to make good decisions about how they manage their time, what meetings they attend, and how often they need to communicate with their colleagues. This level of trust has led to more engaged, passionate, innovative employees who are proud of their role in fulfilling our organization’s mission. You can improve your entire organization simply by trusting your employees. The world has enough sheep. What fences are you going to take down?