Trust is an interesting part of organizational culture. While some leaders may say they trust their staff, in reality, it may not be the case.

What changes happen within the organization when we really and truly trust our employees?

Does it change how we supervise?

Does it change the criterion for good performance?

These questions and others must be addressed as management and leadership literature is filled with language that suggests manager positions were created because we can’t trust our employees

Does Nature have a CEO?

Nature was created on relationships that imply trust. Every species down to the molecular level is 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 have historically been designed. For example, job descriptions are written to hold people accountable for a specific set of job duties, and performance reviews are created to evaluate how well an individual employee is fulfilling their job description. Very rarely do performance reviews reinforce self-organization that is in alignment with the company or organizations mission.

The assumption that managers and senior leaders are needed to provide 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. It also implies that organizational planning, motivating others, supervising, and directing are all responsibilities of managers instead of employees. 

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 has caused us to implement processes and procedures to ensure oversight and accountability. However, there is a cost behind 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 rather than the whole. 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 happens when we trust our staff? 

It costs money to have managers provide oversight and direction to employees. They need to spend time managing, observing, and holding people accountable for organizational expectations. 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, that all species can and do self-organize to support each other and the ecosystem they live within and that every species can adapt and innovate as 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 focusing 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 be fearful about the power a supervisor has over 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?