What changes if we trust our employees? Does that change how we supervise? What do we use as a criterion for good performance?

It seems like this question should be obvious, however, management and leadership literature is filled with language that suggests manager positions were created because we can’t trust our employees. We use concepts like accountability, span of control, planning, motivation, and direction as essential roles of managers.

There is no CEO in Nature

Nature is designed on relationships that imply trust. Every species down to the molecular level are designed to self-assemble and self-organize. Ecological systems work because each species and plant life initiate actions that help support the whole. This design implies that an ecosystem can trust the species to contribute to the whole.

This is so different from how our organizations are designed. Job descriptions are designed to hold people accountable for a specific set of job duties. Performance reviews are designed to evaluate how well an individual employee is fulfilling their job description. Rarely do performance reviews reinforce self-organization in alignment with the mission.

The assumption that managers and senior leaders are needed to provide a vision and direction implies that employees aren’t able to serve the whole organization. And we design our organizations to reinforce this assumption. Our individual duties in a job description imply that an employee is only capable of focusing on specific parts of the work. Organizational planning, motivating others, supervising, and directing are all responsibilities of managers instead of employees.

So, why don’t we trust employees? I believe that good managers and leaders do trust employees, but over time, the small number of employees that don’t deserve our trust have caused us to create processes and procedures to ensure oversight and accountability. However, there is a cost of designing an organization for the few instead of the many. When we manage and lead as if employees can’t be trusted, we don’t unleash their talent, creativity, or innovation. We reinforce the message to keep their heads down and focus on the parts. Employees usually have so much more to give, but our organizational distrust communicates that they aren’t seen as contributing anything more than their specific job.

What are the Benefits of Trusting our Employees?

It costs money to have managers provide oversight and direction to employees. They need to spend time managing, observing people to see if they are doing their jobs, and holding people accountable for organizational expectations. In nature, it is driven on very different assumptions of how the world works. Instead of assuming that people cannot be responsible to perform well in alignment with the larger organization, nature assumes that all species can and do contribute to the whole system. Nature assumes that all species can and do self-organize to support each other and the ecosystem they live within. Nature assumes every species has local knowledge that works well in this specific local. And nature assumes that every species can adapt and innovate as local conditions change.

If we assumed we could trust our employees, what would need to be redesigned in our organizations? Would our role of management change? Would our job descriptions include the expectation of self-organization? Would we engage with people because they have valuable insights to contribute? Would we unleash their talent instead of focus on controlling it?

People know when they are trusted and respected in their organization. When they feel this, they contribute more and bring their whole selves to work. This creates conditions within an organization to achieve a higher level of productivity because employees aren’t looking to please their supervisors or fearful about the power a supervisor has over them. And the manager doesn’t need to become the bottleneck because all work must go through them.

If this idea intrigues you, ask yourself, what wouldn’t we need to spend time on, if we trusted each other? Or conversely, what procedures, processes, policies, and ways of relating to each other would not be needed if we trusted each other?

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership based on lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net