Simon Terry

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Trust is a design choice

A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts – Harold Macmillan

At the beginning of any organisation, whether you realise it or not, you are faced with a design choice:

Do I trust my people?

The answer to that question and the culture that grows around that answer determines how so many processes, conversations and other interactions will occur across the organisation.

If you don’t trust your people

Should you be going ahead with your organisation?  Seriously.  Think about it.  They are going to have to act on their own at some point.  Nobody can or should remove every independent decision from another person.  

Can you build their capability to earn your trust?  It is worth investing some money in recruitment and development to avoid the costs ahead in an organisational design without trust.

If you still want to go ahead, prepare yourself for lots of controls, hierarchy, and monitoring processes and people.  A lot of value will be invested in controlling people, managing the lack of trust out of your business so that you can function. You will also be more likely to have silos of power and information separating haves and have nots.  These processes will all impede the agility, engagement, flexibility & potential of your people.  Remember you don’t trust them so that’s what you chose.

Of course, trust may only extend so far. If they are not trusted in one process, do you trust them in others?  Can you explain why the processes differ.  You will need to or the lack of trust will be corrosive to an overall culture of trust.  We all have heard examples of the refrain “I can discuss a $1m deal with a client, but I can’t post a comment on the intranet without approval.”  If there is a reason then you need to be able to explain it. 

Often you hear the excuse “but the consequences of failure are catastrophic, we cannot afford to trust”.  If the consequences of failure are extreme, you need trust more but you might want to think about how you genuinely engage your people in mitigating the risks.  Taking the risks out of their control may be no improvement at all if the result is apathy or lack of responsibility for the risks.

If you trust your people

If you trust your people, focus on the culture of personal accountability in your organisation.  Work to build your people’s capability to that they are better able to exercise that trust.  Give people real meaty challenges to enable them to show your potential.  Ask yourself if you can have a flatter organisation, fewer approvals and put more upon your people.  They might just revel in the challenge and surprise you.

A word about ‘Trust but Verify’

‘Trust but verify’ is a commonly discussed way to enable organisations to loosen the shackles and create a higher trust environment.  In many cases, some verification will be mandated by regulatory or other requirements.  People need follow-up and follow-through to see the reinforcement of their responsibility and to understand that there are consequences of breaches of trust.

However make sure you have the order right.  If your process turns out to be ‘Verify, then Trust’, you have no trust at all.  If someone can’t act on their own and wear the consequences, then you don’t have ‘Trust but Verify’.


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