THE BLOG
09/23/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Trusting the Inmates to Run the Asylum

What if senior management didn't "run" the company? We usually think of it that way, the executives make the decisions and everyone else follows orders. Right? That's certainly how insane asylums are run. It's time to change that frame and start trusting employees.

No matter how well you multi-task or how varied your skill-set, you have to develop a team that can work autonomously as the company grows. I am not saying to just hand over the keys and head to Maui. But try to micromanage it all, and before long you will be the one requiring psychiatric care.

Empowerment leads to freedom

Unless your workplace is actually an insane asylum, you will need a more empowering context than insanity. Provide your employees with the autonomy to do their best work, because more freedom for them means more freedom for you.

With autonomy, employees feel empowered to focus on the specific areas where they can be most valuable. Leaders can then focus on the aspects of the business where they can add the most value, like raising funding or positioning the company to emerge into a new market.

That has a very different look and feel than a company that is run with concentrated authority, promoting fierce competition and increasing profits by any means necessary. The leaders there are the bottleneck that everything has to go through. They lose all of their freedom because they feel they have to monitor everything. They have to be the first ones there in the morning and the last to leave late at night.

More and more companies are embracing an approach where leaders grant autonomy. Employees grow stronger at what they do, find fulfillment in that mastery, and eventually own projects that they will take off their manager's plate. In those organizations leadership comes from everywhere, not just top to bottom.

Of course all of that hinges on trust...

The speed of trust

I am not suggesting that you merely give employees carte blanche to come and go as they please, and work in an unstructured fashion. Your talent needs goals and you need to be attentive to their progress and their needs.

I get it, the market is extremely competitive. Create a product that people want and before you know it, five companies are vying for your market-share. So executives think, we need to move things along quickly to beat out our competition and we need to be hyper-vigilant so that nobody on the team makes a costly mistake along the way. That approach is counter-intuitive, since what is really needed is more trust.

According to Stephen Covey, "trust is the key leadership competency of the new, global economy". In his book, The Speed of Trust, Covey explains how when people are trustworthy and build trusting relationships within an organization, that is when rapid growth occurs.

But trust is not enough

Covey discusses the four zones of the trust matrix, a combination of a high or low propensity of trust and a high or low degree of analysis. On one end of the spectrum is indecision. These are the micromanagers who have a low propensity of trust coupled with a low degree of analysis.

On the other end of the spectrum is judgment. This is the ideal, and these leaders have a high propensity of trust and a high degree of analysis. They provide their people with ownership and accountability over tasks and elicit resourcefulness and creativity.

The analysis part comes in the form of information. You need to collect and analyze insights from your employees to gauge their strengths and abilities.That is why I ask my team these questions on a regular basis:

- What are your wins (big or little) for this week?
- Are there any obstacles you are facing and can I help?
- What are your top three priorities for next week?

Now for each member of my team I know where their strengths lie and what gets them excited. I know where they are stuck so that I can offer support, and also know exactly how much to challenge them. I know how aligned they are with big-picture goals, and by aggregating their responses I can see their growth over time.

With this information I can confidently grant my employees autonomy to do their best work, and trust that it will get done.

Creating Space

A workplace can be somewhere that people trudge to day after day and only work hard enough so that they don't lose their job or don't have to deal with micromanagement (what really drives people crazy). If it feels like an asylum, your people will feel like inmates.

When your business feels like a space where people are heard, trusted, and supported, it will be something so much more. Employees will be committed to fulfilling the company mission, instead of just being committed.