The Hardest Part of Transforming Your Company is Actually Believing What You Say

At Salt & Pepper 30s, our fourth value is “Default to Trust.” This shouldn’t be a surprise to those of you who read our blog. Throughout all of my posts about leadership, you’ll see something about trust. To me, this is one of the defining characteristics of a leader- the ability to trust people until they prove unworthy of it, rather than making people earn it first. The reason for this is simple — the vulnerability gives us an uncanny power to build stronger relationships and cultures. In a similar vein, across all the experience I’ve had, the feedback I’ve gotten from partners in the change management space, and in the sea of research out there, I have seen a common stumbling block for companies that are trying to transform either their culture or their management structure:

They want their employees to feel empowered, but they’re just not ready to trust them yet.

Many companies want the benefits of self-management or an improved culture, but they don’t want any risk — and that’s understandable. In many of the articles that you read about self-organization, people generally tout the potential of the system or how it enhances company culture. They don’t often talk about the startup costs that come along with on-boarding a system like this (Holacracy, for example). No, I’m not just referring to the training costs of learning how to use the new system; I mean actual dollars and cents. There is always an adoption period for these systems where new freedoms are being explored, expectations are not being met, things are falling through the cracks, and numbers are being missed. It’s natural. I mean, think about it: you’re not just learning a new way to run meetings, you’re learning how to work with people all over again. You’re going against a lifetime’s worth of practice & teaching, and doing so while deadlines are still creeping closer. Your focus becomes more on what you’re doing behind the scenes than on what brings in your revenue (and no, I’m not saying that your company’s culture & structure doesn’t impact your customers. It does. I’m saying that at the end of the day, culture doesn’t pay the bills, your products and services do). So when “leadership” sees that things aren’t going the way they’d imagined, they begin to get uneasy. When this happens, what we often see is a rapidly decaying performance cycle that looks something like this: Employers tell employees they have freedom → Employees test that freedom → Employers see this and get nervous, so they put a few restrictions in place to stop the perceived “negative” behavior → Employees take this as a sign that they may not have freedom much longer, so they test the limits even more than before → Employers put more restrictions and control mechanisms in place to set regain control → Employees lose trust in the employer and either leave or even worse, become unmotivated and stay.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we treat people like they are not worth trusting, we are encouraging them to see themselves in that same light, and eventually play the part. Whereas, if we would focus less on figuring out how to ensure that no one does the “wrong thing” and spend more time making sure everyone knows what the “right things” are, we would see better results. Think about it, if you are always telling someone what they can’t do, that’s the lens they will continue to look through. To say, “Do the right thing, even when no one is looking” is very different than, “Don’t steal or murder.” While both would deter stealing and murder, when phrased the second way, even the most trustworthy person might think, “Hmmm… well what could I get away with?”

And no matter how much this makes sense to us logically, we do the opposite all the time. We say things like, “You have a five-minute grace period before you’re considered late,” instead of something like, “Be responsible with your attendance,” or “Keep the customer in mind whenever you make a decision about attendance.” It’s different, right? It feels different. The reason? The latter examples instill ideals vs. laying down laws. They do this because they’re based on a fundamentally different belief about your employees- the “five minute grace period” outlook implies that employees are inherently untrustworthy, and need to be controlled. It assumes that people don’t want to do the right thing. The “Be responsible” or “Keep the customer in mind” examples assume that people are inherently trustworthy. They are based on the belief that people want to do the right thing, and simply need to be given context or a north star to do so effectively.

This is the choice that we all face in life — what do we believe about people? Are they inherently good or bad? I personally choose to believe that people are inherently good. I default to trusting people, even if from time-to-time it can be to my detriment. I believe that this approach is the way to get the best out of everyone — companies, employees and even customers.


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