High-Trust Culture, #3: Empower Everyone

January 21, 2014 /LinkedIn/ – When people think of their most rewarding professional achievements, what usually come to mind are their genuine accomplishments: the times when they faced challenges, beat the odds, or created something that stood the test of time.

Though our most meaningful work is often the result of intensive effort and focus, most of the time we don’t do it alone. Our best performances are nearly always spurred on by colleagues and leaders who have empowered us – that is, trusted us with the freedom and resources to excel.

Google executive Thomas Williams has a great image for grass roots empowerment. Rather than allowing people to be pulled into repetitive, “hamster wheel” tasks, he gives them the freedom to “build their own treadmills.” That way, he says, “No one’s telling you you’re not going fast enough – everyone is telling themselves that.” This kind of respectful empowerment leads to more creativity and risk-taking, boosting the chance that people will enjoy their jobs and that the whole organization will benefit.

Low-trust organizations have trouble giving their teams the latitude to do much. Wary of everyone, they often don’t trust even their most trustworthy people. Instead, they rely on thick compliance manuals for even the most trivial matters, and reward tattlers as a way to prevent rule breaking. This suspicious atmosphere kills initiative and creativity, and worst of all, it stifles any potential for trust.

It’s true that neither trust nor power should be bestowed willy-nilly. As with trust in any area of life, it should be granted to people with the character and competence to make responsible use of it. But at the very least, everyone should have the opportunity to earn it.

The first two posts in this series focused on personal integrity and respect as foundational to a high-trust organization. Without empowering trusted team members, however, integrity and respect will remain inert.

Here are a few things to consider if you’re aiming to build a culture where people are empowered to do great work:

1) Bet on people. Allow people a chance to prove they can take on more responsibility. A leader who trusts others to grow – knowing they may stumble – exhibits a level of trust that generally inspires the best in people and can ignite sparks of trust in an otherwise mistrustful environment. Identifying and empowering the most competent, highest-integrity team members is a great way to start.

2) Take action. Stanford’s Design School teaches a “bias towards action.” That means a preference for trying out ideas, rather than sitting around planning and analyzing. In short, when people are actually doing things, iterating and refining as they go, they tend to get the best results. Empowering teams to act means missteps are less expensive and people learn faster.

3) Don’t forget the past. Ok, now forget the past. Many organizations do things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” Institutional knowledge and process can be a valuable source of wisdom; but it may also represent deeply entrenched inertia. An organization’s “best practices” are often just organizational scar-tissue, the codification of long-forgotten mistakes that are no longer relevant in the current world. High-trust organizations don’t rely blindly on old rules. Instead, they trust their teams to figure out the new ones.

4) Expect foul-ups. Granting trust doesn’t guarantee perfect results. In fact, the more latitude you give people, the more you may find that they miss the mark as they grow into their responsibilities. Part of trusting team members with power is understanding that even the best efforts can, and do, falter. When it happens, the team should examine the reasons for the misstep, distill some lessons, and move forward with renewed vigor.

5) Avoid the paraphernalia of paranoia. If trust-based organizations focus on empowering people to do their best, mistrustful ones fixate on preventing people from doing their worst. Trust-poor enterprises often assuage their fear of disaster with policy manuals, compliance committees, overactive legal departments, and even rewards for turning others in. These practices give rise to an anxious, worst-case mindset that can squelch confidence and creativity.

For some leaders, the idea of sharing power feels risky. They may never have experienced that giving up power is a great way to create more. That’s unfortunate because, in many organizations, those with the best information do not work at headquarters, but on the front lines. Organizations that don’t trust anyone outside the inner circle are destined to disappoint and stumble, while their high-trust counterparts marshal talent and experience from deep within the ranks.

By Joel Peterson

Next: Ensuring Trust with Accountability