The Startup
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The Startup


Do You Mind If I Just Watch You Thinking?

Why the most important aspect of the employment relationship is trust

Why do we really want people in the office? Do we get pleasure out of watching them thinking, or do we just not trust them? Is it now time for a different approach to performance management?

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Some jobs are easy to monitor remotely. Goods produced, or call centre volumes can be counted and measured. Sometimes this is done every week. Sometimes daily or hourly.

Additionally, the specific actions required in some roles are easy to communicate. Organisations produce process maps of the tasks necessary to complete an objective.

But not all jobs are like this.

Other jobs are more subjective. Require more thinking. May take many weeks to reach a significant milestone or satisfactory conclusion or completion. Descriptions of these jobs are more nebulous.

So, while it is easy to monitor the former, more straightforward type of role, the latter is much more difficult to assess. Looking over the shoulder of someone performing these jobs doesn’t help much.

Have you ever watched someone thinking? Have you ever tried to quantify whether they are thinking successfully? Whether they are thinking productively, or efficiently?

I thought not. And it would be pointless if you did.

The critical point is the quality of the end product, which is dependant on how good the explanation of what is required was.

Objective setting is something of an art form. Most people have heard about the need for SMART objectives.

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant & Time-Based

But it is also true that if managers spent more time working on the objective at the outset, they would save many more hours dealing with employees who didn’t achieve what they wanted them to.

In addition to explaining what is required, identifying why it is essential is also critical. Employees who fully understand that if they do X, then the result will be Y for the organisation, will understand their value to the organisation, better and the consequences if they are not successful.

All of this is relatively basic stuff.

If a boss is very clear about what is required, and by when, then they can be more relaxed about where the work is done.

The problem is that people don’t generally trust each other. Well, they might trust them a bit. But not totally.

Trust is “…a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.”

Given that an employer presumably selected or recruited somebody on the ability that they had (or the potential that they showed), then if they can’t trust them, it follows that they consider them unreliable or dishonest.

So, consider this exchange between an employer and their boss.

Employee — “Hi Jim, would it be OK if I work from home next week so that I can work on Project Xanadu?”

Boss — “Hey John, excellent idea, but unfortunately I can’t agree to that.”

Employee — “Oh. Why is that? After the time we spent clarifying what was required, I know just what is needed.

Boss — “Yes, I’m sure you do.

Employee — “Great. And you know I’ve got the skills to do the task. After all, I don’t suppose you’d have recruited me if I hadn’t would you? I mean, that wouldn’t have been great, would it?

Boss — “Well, no, I don’t suppose it would.”

Employee — “I’m glad we got that sorted. So are you saying I am a) Unreliable, or b) Dishonest?

Boss — “Err…Neither? Of course, you can work from home next week!

Employee — “Thanks Jim, for a minute, I thought you needed me in the office so that you could sit and watch me thinking!

I am not suggesting that small organisations should go from everyone working in an office to everyone working away from it. Although, the global pandemic forced many firms to do just that. And, amongst the death and tragedy delivered by COVID-19, organisations will have had to adapt. Those that were able to adapt may survive in the long run. Those businesses will also have learnt many lessons from the situation forced upon them. But not everything will have been wrong.

So, if small business leaders do nothing else, they should document their experiences from the last three months and encourage their teams to do the same.

  • What do I need to stop?
  • What would I like to continue?
  • What would I like to start?

This approach has the added benefit of producing something positive out of a crisis that will leave so many bad memories.

We have already discovered that we can achieve things that we didn’t know we were capable of in this pandemic, now let’s go and show ourselves that we can do so much more!

Give it a go — even if only on a trial basis — give team members the option to work when and where they can be most productive, and trust them to deliver.



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Paul Helsby HR

Paul Helsby HR


HR Consultant @ PR-HR Solutions Ltd. Writing to share experiences — good and bad — gained from 25+ years in HR.