Trust is an essential component in almost all dealings between human beings, other than outright hostile ones like wars and terrorism. It is certainly vital for the proper running of any organization, as well as for almost all the components of trade and commerce. Lack of trust between trading partners undermines the proper functioning of business. Mistrust is a major cause of excessive (and unnecessary) workload on leaders, since the absence of trust means everyone has to be supervised and monitored almost constantly. Yet current styles of management—especially Hamburger Management—either ignore the importance of trust altogether, or act in ways guaranteed to undermine and destroy it.

The current emphasis on “management by numbers”—the belief that what cannot be measured (or is not measured, by choice) will simply not happen—represents the opposite of trust: an immediate assumption that employees are feckless, lazy, stupid, or just plain awkward. Many years ago, Douglas McGregor described this as “Theory X” and showed how it led to tight controls and an obsession with motivation by direct (usually monetary) incentives: exactly the situation today in many organizations.

In the workplace, trust is an essential element between colleagues sharing a project, people trusting that the boss will arrange equitable rewards and recognize good work, or customers trusting that the product or service you supply will be there on time and match up to what you promised. Keeping people’s trust (and restoring it, if you have acted in ways that undermine their faith in you) matters a great deal in hard business terms. Managing in an organization low on trust demands much more time and effort (to check up on everyone, attend otherwise pointless meetings for the same purpose, and generally micromanage to the detriment of your own work and sanity). It usually means that other people don’t trust you either. Subordinates don’t trust a boss who doesn’t trust them, and become prone to doing no more than is essential to keep their jobs. Bosses may secretly congratulate you on “bringing home the bacon,” however you did it, but you can be sure that they will have noted any untrustworthy actions and will take care in future that you have no opportunity to deceive them.

It certainly seems that trust is a disappearing asset, in business as elsewhere. At the organizational level, there seems to be ample proof that risking any organization’s reputation for honesty, fair business dealings, and civilized behavior for the sake of short-term gain is culpably foolish. A solid reputation is worth hard cash, and those who lose it, lose a great deal of money as well.Yet that is what too many organizations and their leaders risk doing today, often on a regular basis. Leadership doesn’t only mean taking tough decisions in a technical or competitive sense. It means acting as a steward for the organization’s values and reputation; and— if necessary—defending that reputation stubbornly against those wishing to set short-term personal and organizational profit above everything else.

People need to be able to trust the boss to give them due credit. Leaders who fail to recognize the contributions of others (or try to pass them off as their own) are actively harming their organizations and themselves. The vast majority of people truly love to contribute their creativity to help the organization. But they won’t do so if leaders, obsessed with their own egos, status, and maintaining the status quo, ignore them, denigrate their contributions, or claim credit for their best ideas. Bosses like that use a well-worn set of rude and dismissive phrases to browbeat their subordinates, systematically destroying any trust that they might have generated by acting fairly and encouraging other people to contribute.

Hamburger Management relies on whatever is quickest, simplest and cheapest, regardless of the quality of the means or the outcome. Its myopic obsession with the shortest of short-term gains leaves no place for anything beyond rigid control and micromanagement. The willingness of Hamburger Managers to sacrifice anyone and anything to “make the numbers” destroys the trust people would otherwise place in their leaders. Without reciprocal loyalty, why should employees be loyal in their turn?

Leadership of this kind is teaching a generation of people an extremely dangerous set of lessons: that money is all that counts, that the ends justify the means, and that the only set of needs and objectives that really matters is your own. It’s time to put our trust in trust itself: to accept that you cannot possibly watch everyone all the time, that monetary incentives cannot take the place of commitment to a cause and a leader, and that without trust in one another there can be no sense of community or productive relationships in the workplace.

Related Postings:

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

Love this article?