Engagement Practice _ 54: Place Your Trust and Confidence in Your Workforce

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To demonstrate trust in people before they have even earned it is a risky

proposition. We may find out later that our trust was misplaced or even

betrayed. We may risk giving away our own power as leaders. We may

trust employees too much to make important decisions before they are

ready, thus jeopardizing a customer relationship. And yet, employers of

choice routinely take these risks and make a habit of trusting employees

before they have earned it.

Nordstrom department stores is famous for trusting its sales people with

the power to make on-the-spot decisions that build customer loyalty, even

if it means spending the company’s money to do it. When Bill Gore left

DuPont to start W. L. Gore and Associates in the basement of his house,

he recognized the importance of trusting employees with the independence

to make decisions that serve the interests of the organization.

To formalize this philosophy, Gore sent out a company memo outlining

the concept of ‘‘the waterline,’’ likening employees to the crew of a

ship. Understandably, no employees would be allowed to drill holes below

the waterline, as that would endanger every crew member. They would be

allowed to drill holes above the waterline, but not below.

In other words, with every decision they faced, employees would ask

themselves, ‘‘is this decision above or below the waterline?’’ If they concluded

that the decision might significantly impact other crew members,

they would be obligated to consult further with more senior colleagues. If,

however, they concluded that the impact on other crew members would

be negligible, they were free to make their own judgments without consulting

more senior crew members.15

In his book Making the Grass Greener on Your Side: A CEOs Journey to

Leading by Serving, Ken Melrose tells the story of taking over as CEO at

Toro Company when the emphasis was on getting bottom-line results at

all costs. The company had been pushing so hard to get bigger that, somewhere

along the way, its reputation for quality among its distributors and

customers eroded so badly that it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Melrose and his executive team decided to put the emphasis on quality

and product excellence and aggressively reduced high field inventories.

Customer satisfaction became the new byword. At the same time, Melrose

became a convert to a servant leadership philosophy and began ‘‘driving

power down to the people who do the actual work and make things

happen.’’

He established what he called ‘‘four leadership imperatives—building

trust through openness; fostering risk-taking, innovation, and creativity;

practicing a coaching and serving role; and creating win-win situations.’’

He also installed an Employee Stock Ownership Plan so that the title of

‘‘owner’’ became more than symbolic.

Melrose credits the servant leader approach for the company’s revival,

pointing out that it runs against the grain of traditional corporate leadership,

which concentrates power and control at the top. ‘‘Ego addiction is the

main cause of management failure because it causes people in management

positions to suppose they know all, to hoard power, and to destroy trust.’’16

Sometimes managers learn by trial and error. When Gerald Chamales

founded Rhinotek Computer Products in Carson, California, he admits he

was ‘‘completely green’’ as a manager and found himself behaving in a

dictatorial way with his employees. He screamed at employees who didn’t

follow orders precisely and threw temper tantrums when employees failed

to measure up to his standards. As a result, he alienated his workforce.

Then he began to notice the company’s high turnover and began asking

himself if it might be connected to his own management style.

Chamales decided to change his approach—he learned to control his

temper, and started walking around his office and plant floor soliciting feedback

from his 200 employees. Turnover declined dramatically thereafter.

‘‘I’ve done everything in this company from sweeping floors to typing

invoices, yet it is important to have humility and realize that the people

doing the jobs have the solutions.’’17

Ultimately, it boils down to simple human respect. In her book with a

one-word title—Respect—Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot describes her father’s

secret: ‘‘He gained respect by giving it. He talked to the fourth-grade kid

in Spring Valley who shined shoes the same way he talked and listened to

a bishop or a college president. He was seriously interested in who you

were and what you had to say.’’18

When senior leaders invest so much energy in their own self-importance

that they cannot adopt this humbler attitude, they lose the opportunity

to engage and inspire. Many will never change their authoritarian,

micromanaging styles because they are not comfortable with the idea of

giving away power. The irony is, when leaders give power away, they

increase the collective power of the organization to innovate and meet new

challenges, thus enhancing their own power in the long run.