Innovation Starts With Trust

In these transitional times the modern workplace is polarizing. On one side are traditional environments laden in policy, bureaucracy and abysmal engagement scores. On the other, are modern innovative ones with happy, engaged and wildly productive people.

The fundamental difference between the two isn’t dress policy, office layout, or flexible work policies.

It’s trust.

I'm a big believer in flexible policies, but in and of themselves loosening policies won’t make an organization innovative. If they don’t result in stronger bonds of trust they’re all for naught.

I’ve spent most of my twenty plus year career ‘in software’. From development and design to deployment and management. I’ve stood on the front lines as computers were used to amplify mistrust across the organization.

I’ve watched enterprise systems - for all their potential, be designed around the fundamental premise that people couldn’t be trusted.

The enterprise possibilities that came with a PC on every desk were truly mind-blowing.

However, the unintended consequence of having a PC on every desk is that it became a vehicle of mistrust. Introducing new software gave organizations everywhere the means to clamp every violation of trust ever conceived. Whether an underhanded employee act was witnessed, heard at the water cooler, or was simply a hypothetical scenario yet to play out, the stewards of the new system were on a mission to prevent such acts from taking place ever again.

I witnessed the glint of excitement that came to the anointed business SME’s as they exercised the power to stop people from doing what they had previously. Despite the best intentions, the assumption of mistrust has bled into every enterprise system I've been involved in.

Something that an employee was trusted to do last week they were no longer. For no good reason other than a co-worker had been granted special powers to play judge and jury. To systemize mistrust.

The thrill of being in the field of software at an emergent and potentially exciting time was tarnished with the enterprise application of it.

I was there on the front line as technology, with all of it’s empowering possibilities, sucked the soul out of people. Out of the enterprise.

How did engagement scores tank to 15%? The enterprise stopped trusting people. And technology allowed them to wear that mistrust in a very visible way. Even if management mistrust was previously suspected in an organisation, enterprise systems designed by administrative gatekeepers eradicated any doubt.

What about that other group? Those that get it. Those modern businesses that are thriving - many being led by those as young as my children.

These are the true custodians of technological possibility. They leverage technology to collaborate, to share, to be open. They would no more limit an employee's access to a field on a form, than they would prescribe what they wear to work.

They’re fuelled by the collaborative possibilities of technology. They get it. They’re rewriting the story of what people and organizations are capable of.

They inherently trust their employees.

For those traditional enterprises that created systems merely to impose rules, all is not lost. I truly believe that traditional businesses can wake up and join the party. I’m not going to suggest you replace multi-million pound systems. I’m going to suggest you start sending new signals now.

Change your controlling policies and start sending signals of trust. Signals that say I trust you to wear appropriate clothing, use your device appropriately, complete work you committed to wherever you deem suitable. Do it not because it’s what the cool kids do, but to let your employees know you trust them.

And actually start trusting them.

Signs of mistrust are everywhere. Literally. Get rid of those well intended posters that imply people will do the wrong thing: “put away your dishes”, “don’t park over the yellow lines”, “limit 2 cups of coffee per day”. Get rid of all of them. They chip away at trust.

And yes, over time, reacquaint yourself with the incredible possibilities of technology. Bring in new systems that signal openness and collaboration. And when you do, entrust SME’s that are keen to open the gates to everyone. Not those that want to keep the key to themselves.

And yes, people will abuse it. Train your management to have tough conversations with those that do. Don't hide behind a new broad sweeping policy that implicates everyone. As tempting as that is because broad sweeping policies are easier than tough conversations. 

The two worlds that we're experiencing in today's workplace will merge back into one. We're simply in a transition period. Those that cling onto notions of control and mistrust are quickly becoming relics. And soon they'll become history. There's still time to transition from traditional to innovative. But those change efforts must start with a genuine showing of trust.