Why trust beats hierarchy

There has been some wonderful writing about leadership in the last 3 months, nailing the qualities of inspirational individuals. I’ll take fifty each of Kit, Janet and Benji please.

If the Cabinet Secretary was presented with these 150 exceptional people, all his prayers would surely be answered. One per major project. Job done.

But perhaps not. He also needs to create the conditions for brilliant people to work collectively, learn together and enjoy it enough to stay.

Even with the best individuals, achieving that is not only a question of them sharing the right values. It is about the system and culture that binds individuals together. The Civil Service has always had great people. There’s clearly more going on.

The most broken departments I’ve worked in were also the least trustful of colleagues, new or old. The biggest project failures crumbled on relationships that began with mistrust. If an organisation doesn’t trust itself, why would anyone else?

Our best hope, I think, is to combine great leaders with networks that reward trust.

Talk your way out

The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that rational people might not cooperate even when it is in their best interests to do so. When you play multiple rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a tit-for-tat equilibrium sometimes appears. A screws B, B screws A, and so on.* This happens quite a lot in the civil service.

In the dilemma, lags are kept in isolated cells, unable to talk with one another. To win the game, you have to create lines of communication. If you can’t manage it, you get a third party in to help you.

Big organisations are full of isolated cells. We call them departments, arms-length bodies, units, professions, teams. At the moment, the best leaders should feel like they’re spending almost all their time scaling these walls. Not a minute of it is wasted. We need them to climb faster than the people building the walls.

Networks only get you part of the way though. Talking to your cellmate doesn’t mean they won’t shaft you later.

Trust what you see, not what they say

And that’s where leadership comes in, because in a big organisation, you need your stars to flaunt their rules for trust. You need to know what the cultural default is — to trust or not. And you need a way of tailoring that defaults to fit circumstances.

At the moment, civil servants often default to mistrust. As for tailoring, many use grades. When you meet a civil servant, they will often introduce themselves as ‘I’m the Grade 5 from the Department of X’. What they’re saying is: ‘You can trust my level of competence and decision making power within this organisation you know nothing about.’

Grades are a rubbish rule of thumb for trust. They tell you little about what a person has done or what they could do.

Taking the time to dig deeper is worth it, because life gets easier the more you default to trust and award it on the basis of competence. Trusting the people in your team to deliver without looking over their shoulder. Trusting that your peers’ motives are honourable. Trusting your senior managers to come down hard if your peers turn out to be bastards. Trusting people to get ideas above their station and follow through on them.

I would love to see the next Government Digital Strategy explain how civil servants will create and maintain trust between one another. It is just as important as how they will build trust with citizens and suppliers. The departmental efforts too.

Just more hippie crap?

A complaint from certain quarters about the jeans-wearing post-it totin’ digital monkeys is the kind of towering naivety I’m parading right now. ‘I’d like to see your Grade 6 Service Manager stand up in front of the Public Accounts Committee when it all falls over,’ they say. ‘I’d like to see the product manager of this cross-government bit be hung out to dry when my service relying on it breaks down.’

I would too. It would be much better than having a cadre of people accountable for delivery they may play no direct part in. More importantly, it would put trust back in the hands of everyone who deserves it, at every level of an organisation.

Sometimes trust is misplaced. But if an organisation starts from the assumption it’ll be screwed over, even the best leaders will be scuppered from the start.

@ad_greenway

* The Prisoner’s Dilemma is more complicated than this.