Trust, Innovation, and Managing People
I've frequently heard people charged with leading teams - managerial and executive - express the need to establish "trust" with their employees before giving them full control over the responsibilities that go with the job they hired them to do. In some situations this makes sense - task and detailed oriented jobs or jobs driven by check lists and schedules. Hiring an individual into a help desk position, for example, might require several weeks of detailed supervision to insure the new hire understands the ticket system, proper phone etiquette, and the products they'll be required to support. Beyond this, when I hear the "trust" criteria come from senior managers or C-level executives, it's usually a reliable red flag for control issues likely to limit growth opportunities for the new hire or perhaps even the organization.
If you've just hired an individual with deep experience and agreed to pay them a hefty salary to fulfill that role, does it make sense to burden either of you with the corrosive effects of micro-monitoring and micro-managing until some magical threshold of "trust" is reached? If anything, such last-century management practices will postpone or even prevent the needed trust. When challenged, I've yet to hear an executive clearly articulate the criteria for trust in these cases. It's usually some variant of "I'll know it when it see it."
We're probably 40 years deep into the Age of the Knowledge Worker, and yet the influence of manufacturing and labor approaches to management remains strong. Methods and principles organized around stable markets and burdened with complex administrative practices are still more common than not in medium to large organizations. This is another example of what's been called "corporate scar tissue." In an effort to control and make predictable the uncontrollable (chaos, entropy, evolution, change) leaders work to lock down the system. As a result, smart people cannot make common sense decisions and innovate.
There's more at stake than just the idea of stifling innovation. Being clear about ownership and accountability in the relationship between business leaders and knowledge workers it critical. Unlike the Industrial Revolution model of apprentice-master, where your boss very likely was a master at the task you might be hired to do, in the Information and Knowledge Worker Age that relationship is almost certainly flipped. Even for us coders that have moved on to management, the workforce that has kept current with technology is guaranteed to know more about solving technical problems than we do.
More and more our job is about removing obstacles from the "workers who know," even if that obstacle is ourselves, which it frequently is. Management is responsible for the "what to do" and should be held accountable for making that clear. Knowledge workers are responsible for the "how to do" and should be held accountable for delivering on the "what." Layering on rules and tightening controls squeezes and chokes the developing trust between management and knowledge workers. Fewer rules builds more trust. Be careful in reading that last line. It's about fewer rules. Not no rules. Care and thought needs to go into selecting the rules you want and need. When it comes to the "how," let the teams figure out the rules they need.
Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash