The power of trust vs trust in power

Apr 10 2006 by John Blackwell Print This Article

I would like to share with you an interesting dichotomy we have recently witnessed.

Over recent months, we have been observing a major financial services organisation as they energetically went about endeavours to enhance their workplace effectiveness through the introduction of new ways of working.

The group's stated objective for this programme was to create a competitive 21st century workplace whilst simultaneously delivering double-digit percentage cost avoidance.

In parallel, the company was vigorously marketing itself as a premier online banking provider, offering secure access to every form of electronic transaction.

When is security not actually security but merely a cloak for some other underlying issue?
The interesting dichotomy is, this same organisation insists it cannot allow its staff to work from any location other than one of its formal office "due to security issues".

To say such mixed messages present a huge propensity to confuse and unsettle the workforce is an understatement – is this organisation seriously saying it's OK for customers to securely undertake transactions electronically across the internet but it's not acceptable for staff to access systems remotely?

It begs the question "when is security not actually security but merely a cloak for some other underlying issue?"

It's all too easy to wag the finger of blame towards a company's IT operation eager to defend their turf by presenting a perennial diatribe of 'security constraints and vulnerabilities' as the reason for these constraints. The truth is, with today's infrastructure, it's feasible to address any requisite level of security demanded by the job.

Experience has shown, however, that there is often another more subtle underlying 'culprit' behind these so-called security issues - and that is management trepidation to break with the conventions of 'line-of-sight' management.

For executives who have grown up with management disciplines riddled with hierarchies, status, and the size of one's department, it can be a Herculean leap of faith to expect them simply to embrace new working practices that involve an increasingly distributed workforce.

Indeed, it's fair to say the bulk of today's management competencies are drawn from outmoded temporal and spatial measures learnt from our peers and predecessors – measures fuelled by insecurities over the need to 'control' and 'observe' employees.

And at the very hub of these insecurities is the fabric of trust that's essential for effective workplaces to exist and thrive.

To gain a better insight into the nature of the trust factor that exists in our workplaces, we undertook a survey of employees from 438 organisations – large and small, public and private sector alike. Our survey probed the views of employees on the levels of trust within the workplace and confidence in their managers' abilities. The results were quite startling.

Over half (54 per cent) of employees expect to change jobs in the next two years.

The vast majority of this change – 71 per cent – was anticipated to be forced on the workforce due to business circumstance – driven by a change in demand for product or service that leads to the inevitable downsizing, re-sizing, or re-skilling.

Given this turmoil in our workplaces and the absence of the levels of job security experienced by our forefathers, it can hardly be surprising that nearly half (48 per cent) of those surveyed said they had no trust or confidence in their managers.

Overall, this paints a pretty poor picture of the chronic state of disrepair of manager-employee relationships. And given the significant changes we're experiencing in labour force availability – according to figures from the Department of Work and Pensions, by 2010 only 20 per cent of the UK's workforce will be white, able-bodied men under the age of 45 – these issues of trust must be addressed.

Here's the rub. An untrustworthy employee is untrustworthy – it doesn't matter whether you can see them or not
Clearly, the failure of any employer to recognise and positively address this requisite bond of trust in the workplace will result in a heavy penalty of increased workplace costs and lost competitiveness. These changes demand that employers up their efforts to shake off old practices and focus on strengthening trust at every possible opportunity.

And here's the rub; "an untrustworthy employee is untrustworthy – it doesn't matter whether you can see them or not".

The good news is that increasing numbers of employers are recognising that offering their workforce freedom to work when and wherever can deliver a potent message of trust. The fact is that the vast majority of employees are eager to do a great job (just try to recall the last time someone told you they purposefully set out to do a bad job) and, given a structured approach, most employees will thrive with the freedom of increased autonomy.

Managing by outcome is a highly worthwhile skill to acquire, and certainly beats shuffling management trepidations under the IT carpet.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.