I swear I didn't take any pens home!

I swear I didn't take any pens home!

There’s a retail store round the corner from where I live, owned by a husband and wife. In the seven years they’ve had the business, they haven’t gone on a single holiday together, and that’s because they don’t trust their employees enough to leave them in the store alone – not even for a day.

And I know several employers who could easily offer staff convenient working arrangements, such as the opportunity to work from home every now and then – but they won’t do it. For the same reason. Trust. If they can’t see what their employees are doing, they have little faith they’re doing the right thing.

A lack of trust is reflected in the micromanaging boss who excessively scrutinises every decision an employee makes. It’s reflected in the overworked boss who decides to do everything himself (or herself) because no one else could do as good a job. And it’s reflected in the hawkish boss who monitors all that an employee does, ready to swoop and strike at the first sign of transgression.

Almost all of the reputable research conducted on trust has focused on the trust that employees have in their boss. But very few academics have analysed the outcomes that arise when employees are the ones being trusted rather than the ones doing the trusting.

One of the first studies on this topic was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology as recently as 2008. The researchers, over a two-year period, examined 88 retail stores across Canada, with more than 4700 employees involved. They discovered that when leaders trust their staff:

  • Sales go up.
  • Customer service improves.
  • And employees willingly take more responsibility.

So what’s causing the lack of trust that permeates much of business? From a business owner’s perspective, it could just be they have more to lose. Their entire livelihood depends on the success of their venture, and this often makes them paranoid, keen to vigilantly protect what they’ve built.

From a corporate perspective, the cause is different, perhaps attributed to something known as ‘the imposter syndrome’. The imposter syndrome is driven by intense feelings of insecurity. Some leaders feel as though they’re frauds – as though they’re in way over their head – and so in their desperate attempt to mask these harsh self-assessments, they resort to tactics designed to give themselves greater comfort. Tactics that frequently make the problem worse.

A consequence of these tactics is that they no longer trust their employees. Or, even if they do genuinely trust them, the employees don’t feel trusted. Instead, they feel fiercely monitored, persistently questioned, oppressively managed.

This level of distrust is, of course, reciprocated. In the excellent book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey apportions the existence of unionism directly to the dearth of trust that proliferates workplaces. If employees and leaders sincerely trusted each other, there wouldn’t be a need for such collectivism.

Covey also quotes a former CEO of a steel company who was commenting on a move his organisation made to abandon many company policies: “We felt that a lot of the procedures in many organisations were designed to catch the 3 per cent who were trying to cheat in one way or another. We decided to design our rules for the 97 per cent we can trust.”

So that’s the key, really. Scrap excessive policies. Give employees the freedom to make decisions. Delegate more. Step back. You’ll be burned, maybe.  But, if you believe the theory and the empirical evidence, the trust you give will be returned with greater performance.

All of that assumes distrust arises due to the fault of the leader. It could also be that trust is lacking because employees have trashed it. Taking sickies, missing deadlines, performing poorly, arriving late, gossiping – that kind of thing. The best leaders, though, look inwardly first.

Is trust an issue in your workplace? If so, how?

Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis