The curious case of distrustful leadership

— Trust your kids, trust your wives, and most of all, trust your subordinates —

Lately I’ve been soaking up a lot of experiences and ideas coming from all sorts of directions, finally getting a sense of what is going on around me as an active, constantly fidgeting member of my working environment. At first I thought it might just be weather-induced reflections about the meaning of life or the serious threat of the cocoa crisis and whatnot, but as I came to realize later, they all revolve around my job, an area which occupies most* of my waking hours nowadays.

(*ranking based not on the net value it brings to my development, but directly proportionate to the time i spend working and the income it generates to cover my subsistence needs which I will generically refer to as “rent and sweet treats” — and Maslow would surely agree with me.)

As a young employee in a wide, tangled web of downstream, upstream and every-direction-but-horizontal management flow, I have been demonstrated numerous times that the most important factor conducive to the establishment of a powerful leader position is trust. It’s no news that the leader must be trustworthy enough to be regarded as a 21st century Moses in the team or community it activates in. But doesn’t he also have to be trusting enough?

From my standpoint, this is the key element that’s most missing in our traditional organizations, and whose lack is shaking up the grounds of a healthy, utopic way of functioning. At every level, there is the false sense of bilateral trust in the subordinate-superior relationship: the team member rests assured that its leader has better visibility and the general best interest at heart, while the latter has no certainty that, without the pressure of penalty, consequences, and financial constrictions, the subordinate would make the same decisions. This sense of camouflaged fake trust spirals downwards, from the tip of the hierarchy, and creates new waves of uncertainty that reach even the foundation cells (teams and individuals) of the company.

Come to think of it, it is actually our natural preservation instinct, given the fact that performance builds itself from the lowest level up and grows directly proportional to the responsibility and stakes of the game. Nonetheless, this fear and uncertainty is probably more damaging than taking the risk and trusting your subordinates to perform great even without breathing down their necks, which brings me to the following point: how does distrust manifest itself?

Overly thorough micromanagement. Many times I’ve found myself losing productivity the more my surveillance intensified, and I don’t think I’m a rare breed. I could only imagine that having to constantly report to someone who is tracking your work every step of the way would actually add to the stress of finishing the task efficiently, as opposed to just giving a deadline and being available for guidance along the way. To give another example, logging overtime or undertime in a spreadsheet has always seemed like a gentle insult, giving me the stark impression that I’m not trustworthy enough not to “cheat the system” and to have the drive of rebalancing my withdrawals and deposits in the“work hours bank”.

Empowerment as a disempowering method. On the widely used premises of the limited visibility which narrows with every step down the hierarchy, a time consuming, organically created ping pong of approvals takes place and we often choose the longest route to a result, obliged by the established policies. It is tightly correlated to what Brian Robertson refers to as the “tyranny of consensus”, which tackles this greatly repressed need and summarizes it so clearly: “I don’t want a voice, I want it to have impact”. Of course, there is much to be said here and it sets the ball rolling down to the subject of transparency and the difficulty of maintaining it on such a wide scale, but I feel we could start by eliminating “evasive explanations” for actions taken at higher levels, which do nothing more than to create the illusion that somewhere up there, The Eye of Sauron sees far more that the working hobbits of the shire and has good reasons for the actions and rules it enforces.

Excessive homogenization. Surely homogeneity is a positively viewed concept, which we strive to attain in a working environment. It’s what defines us as a clockwork mechanism made up of interconnected teams and individuals. However, the baseline alignment of common goals, work principles and values seems to be prompting a standardized way of working to reach an idealist functioning model. The gloominess of the situation lies in trying to reach a sort of conveyor belt workflow, without having much to say in term of customization and letting the individual adjust the parameters of its position. That is to say, the lack of trust in each member better functioning on its own terms pushes a leader to enforce more rigid guidelines and goals, for fear of chaos and rebellion, somehow ignoring the fact that organized mayhem can generate a whole lot of new ideas and open many doors.

These few points I have outlined are only a snippet of the many faults a lack of trust engenders, and the only ones I’ve had the chance to encounter and acknowledge so far. Question remains: could the way of retaliating to this phenomenon be just to continue to trust our managers, in the hopes that we, in turn, will be given the benefit of the doubt and stop the cold sweat of supervision from trickling down our spines?

Personally, I don’t have an answer yet and even if I would, I wouldn’t take my word for it; i’m still learning the tools of the trade.