Unlock Success: Embrace Trust Culture & Ditch Micromanaging Now!

Since 2003, Compass Point Consulting has provided hands-on consulting, advisement, and coaching to help businesses close performance gaps, give owners practical, actionable tools that drive growth, and develop leaders who can position a business for successful ownership transition.

Early in my career, I worked as a youth and family counselor at an alternative school for delinquent and troubled teens. The building was full of young people who were on probation, expelled from their home school districts, or facing other serious disruptions at home. Several decades hence it is surprising to me just many of those early key experiences as a counselor are highly relevant to helping family-owned businesses improve company culture.

In the school setting, our team provided five simple prohibitory rules that the students were asked to memorize and follow, with the understanding that if one couldn’t abide by any of those clear rules that person couldn’t stay. Important to note that we focused all of our energy on what everyone should do, with our team doing the painstaking work of helping them form a community that students actually valued and that made them want to do the right thing in the first place, whether adults were watching or not.

Workplaces have to make a similar decision about their internal cultures: you can either have a high-trust culture or a high-monitoring culture. You can’t have both.

Each way is a tremendous amount of work. There’s no free lunch. However, each approach is based on fundamentally different and opposing assumptions about the nature of work, people, and their potential. Here are a few contrasts:

In high-monitoring workplaces:
• Poor performance and bad behavior get most of the attention, and thus, influence the culture
• Mass compliance is encouraged
• Obedience is valued
• Procedures and rules proliferate
• There is the creation of vicious cycles of monitoring, sanctions, and regulation

In high-trust workplaces:
• Exemplary performance and good behavior get most of the attention, and thus influence the culture
• Individuals are encouraged to take responsibility
• Taking initiative is valued
• Procedures and rules are minimized
• There is the creation of virtuous cycles of trust, responsibility-taking, and freedom

I have a friend who is a brilliant guy. He attended excellent schools and has off-the-charts aptitudes in the field of IT. He’s conscientious, creative, and trustworthy. Yet, his entire job description is this: all day/every day he monitors the online behavior and time-on-task of his colleagues within a large corporation.

All of this is done from a keyboard using advanced software and performance metrics. The data he gathers is congealed into digestible reports and sent to other managers, who then punish or reward their staff accordingly.

In any culture, behavior will tend to congregate around the standards and benchmarks that are discussed the most. High-monitoring cultures focus on minimally acceptable standards. Accordingly, they promote mediocre and minimally acceptable performance.

This behavior management strategy is fundamentally the same as most programs for troubled youth. Because a few people can’t be trusted, they treat everyone in the culture as unworthy of trust. Everyone then adjusts to those expectations.

Conversely, building a high-trust workplace culture demands that we treat others as trustworthy. Only then are most people likely to rise to meet that expectation.

Sure, some won’t rise to the occasion. But most of those people are likely to behave that way no matter where they are. Don’t build a workplace culture around loosely committed and low-performing outliers.

By all accounts, my friend’s company is financially successful. However, what is it like to work in a place like that? What type of people and leaders does it develop? How much potential creativity and innovation are lost by focusing brilliant professionals like my friend on the task of catching a small minority of his colleagues doing things wrong? Even more importantly…

How much more success, both human and financial, would this company realize if they focused on helping the vast majority of their staff to maximize what they can do right? With a high-monitoring culture, they will never know.

Much rests on which path an organization chooses. The decision will determine who and how they hire. It will determine whether internal resources are invested in preventing loss or encouraging gain. Most of all, this decision will communicate whether you are only offering people a life-deadening job or a potentially life-changing community.

This guest post is authored by John Bailie, Ph.D. A Family Business Consultant. John’s work is centered on businesses bringing together leadership, organizational culture, governance, and strategy so that the positive impact for business leaders then multiplies exponentially. John has taught leadership and organizational development at Columbia University and the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School where he also served as President. He received an Executive Certificate in Management and Leadership from the MIT Sloan School of Management.  Connect with John: jbailie@compasspt.com.