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Trust as a Management Strategy

Companies use various methods to improve productivity. One such strategy, on the rise in popularity of late, is the use of time tracking and employee monitoring software. Many organizations have adopted these systems to ensure productivity. Others use it to pay freelancers and make similar hourly payments. 

It is often tempting to supervise people. If people know they are monitored, they should be working harder, we assume. You use certain tools, track the time and tasks of your people and ensure expected productivity. In some professions and work settings, this is an effective strategy. It drives results. Procrastination goes down. Every hour can be measured, quantified, and accounted for. People are bound to deliver. 

However, there are risks associated with this approach as well. It indicates you don’t completely trust your people. You don’t rely on their ability to complete work on time, operate independently, and don’t believe they own their work. This second challenge can lead to potential disaster and destruction of your culture.  People will turn bitter. Ownership for the organization will not grow. People will not work more than necessary. Innovation will stall. Leadership will not develop. 

People need certain autonomy and a feeling of independence to learn and grow. When a person comes to learn that his organization relies on him, often he rises to the challenge. Trust enlarges us. Fear does not. When someone trusts in our ability, we grow in return. Our ability expands. We dedicate our full selves to the task. Contrarily, when we learn our superior does not trust in our honesty or ability, we shrink. 

This is what Syed Javed Noor means when he says “Once you trust people, it gets super simple to work with them.” 

In a fascinating interview with Future Startup, Mr. Noor explains his management philosophy this way: “Generally, I trust people. Once you trust people, it gets super simple to work with them. I'm generally hands-off. When you interact with people for 3-6 months, you come to learn who will need more supervision and who can operate with much autonomy. I prefer working with people who need a very low level of supervision.”

Trust in practice 

Now trust does not mean that people operate as they see fit. It is rather the opposite. You help create ownership in people. And build systems for accountability. And create an environment where people can bring their true selves without the fear of pushback or retribution. 

As Patric Lencioni writes in his brilliant Five Dysfunctions of a team: “Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” Trust works both ways. “Trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they're doing it because they care about the team.” More on that in a moment. 

A lack of trust can originate from different sources. 

One common source is disconnection. People in the mid and lower range of the organization don’t feel connected with the vision of the organization. They are not aligned and hence don’t know the meaning of their work and contribution. As a result, they don’t always feel inspired. 

This lack of motivation requires a system that can ensure results even in an environment where people are not essentially motivated or operate with ownership. In response to this challenge organizations and bosses go for micro-management. Unfortunately, while the strategy helps achieve the intended results of optimal productivity from people, it causes a litany of unintended consequences. It creates an environment of distrust. People compete with each other. Take advantage. Cut corners. “If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict,” explains Lencioni. 

If strict supervision is harmful to trust and hence long-term growth and productivity, how do you ensure results? 

This is where a nuanced understanding of trust is useful. Trust does not mean that you don’t use any system or boundaries. Rather the opposite. It means you build systems and create an environment where trust is the default. And you don’t need micro-management to ensure results. 

Mr. Noor explains how he manages and ensures results without micromanaging and building a high-trust environment:  

“When I get into any business, I try to establish efficient processes and systems. First I look at how it is today and then decide where we want to be, looking at the best practices of what is happening across the globe or looking at the opportunities that are present in the environment. We define what we want to achieve, the ways to get there, and develop metrics to follow and monitor progress. These metrics help me a lot.

I have businesses that provide me with weekly reporting of the metrics we have agreed to deliver. For a few, I have daily metrics. That keeps you cool because you know where you want to be and how things are progressing. And if it requires intervention, you can make a timely intervention. You are never surprised any day.”  

Once you have high-level systems in place, it informs and empowers people to operate independently and deliver results. For people to deliver results, they must know what is expected of them. In most environments, trust takes a hit because people are not clear about what they are doing which eventually affects the result. 

This is what Lencioni means when he writes: “The enemy of accountability is ambiguity”. When things are not clearly stated, it is hard to ensure accountability, which leads to misunderstanding. When you have clear targets and metrics to measure the outcome, it means there is no ambiguity. 

Building a culture of trust 

“If you trust people you will not lose,” Mr. Noor tells me. “Most people are good, but it is we who become skeptical and make things complicated. If someone is not capable, you could give them an opportunity. First, see whether they fail or not, but if you start panicking about whether they would be able to do the job or not, then you would start micromanaging. You would not only make your life complicated, but you would also make the life of everyone else complicated.”

In a culture where people trust each other, people grow, organization flourishes. When you afford people the opportunity to make mistakes and explore their capacities with systematic autonomy, they try things. 

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time,” writes Lencioni. 

People row in the same direction when they are aligned with the vision of the organization and trust each other. 

It is this trying and experimentation in turn that leads to unexpected innovations and unbounded results. A controlled environment does not produce genius nor unbounded results. Human potential needs space to flourish. A system that does not trust people, subjugates them, and robs them of their potential. 

“If you can build up a trusting culture, which is present in IDLC, things are bound to flourish,” says Mr. Noor. “Whenever I'm running a business, the first thing I do is try to build up a trust culture. My philosophy is that if I don't trust you, I can’t work with you. We may be good friends, but we would not work together.”

Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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