Here’s what happens in a “trust and respect” work culture

We put a huge emphasis on workplace culture. Browse any careers page of a website and employers will often talk about how great the culture is before diving into compensation, benefits, and job openings. You’ll be met with photos of smiling coworkers, testimonials from employees, and probably even a shot of the office pooch (probably adorned with a title along the lines of “Chief Happiness Officer”).

The focus on culture makes sense to me: our sense of belonging within a workplace drives our desire to stay. Longer employee tenure drives down costs due to turnover and retraining. Yet, I feel something is missing from these Glassdoor reviews and careers pages, something that inherently impacts culture much more than anything else: management style.

While they’re pretty self-explanatory, this is how I see the primary — and opposite — management strategies:

  1. Fear and Control: this style of leadership depends on employees’ fear of making mistakes and letting leadership down. In a fear and control environment, leadership takes granular control over the outcome and process of each project (even if they don’t contribute to getting there), and demand total acquiescence. In this model, an employer requires complete transparency into their employees’ workdays: daily and weekly to-do lists must be visible and shared; daily check-in and check-out times are mandatory; etc.
  2. Trust and Respect: in this style, employers trust their employees to do their work without being told how to do it. Leadership heeds their employees’ advice within their realm of expertise. Touchpoints, while regular, generally discuss outcomes and goals, rather than granular breakdowns of projects and tasks. Employees may experience more flexibility in this environment — say, taking a two-hour lunch to go to the gym, or leaving at 330pm to pick up a child from school — because management respects the employee knows how they work best. Performance is measured based on outcomes rather than the optics of time.

In an office workplace, I certainly have my preference (yes, it’s trust and respect). While I can imagine situations where control-based styles of leadership are more relevant, I can’t see how it would ever fit in a typical office environment. In a workplace where a piece of software does not dictate life or death, I struggle to see the appropriateness of fear and control.

What happens in a trust and respect environment

Have you ever been micromanaged? If you have, you know how it negatively impacted your work. Even just knowing someone is watching you do something seems to split your brain; you spend time thinking about that person watching you, wondering what they must be thinking, which takes away from your ability to actually perform the task. Particularly if you struggle with imposter syndrome, insecurity, or mental health issues, your ability might decrease significantly.

The fear of making a mistake may begin to outweigh the desire to produce high-quality products. It may lead the employee to base their work more on what their manager will say or think, rather than what the end-user is interested in.

In a trust and respect workplace, conversely, the sense of freedom to research, build, iterate, and present their work — none of which is based on a timetable that needs to be followed to the letter — means that work is better quality. It can be centered around what the customer wants or needs, and so internal feedback doesn’t feel personal; it’s all about making the best outcome.

The ability to openly talk to a supervisor or manager has another positive impact: the workplace itself always improves. If something’s not working in a trust and respect environment, employees feel safe approaching their boss to discuss it (respectfully, of course). In turn, the culture itself will improve, as will work processes that are potentially inefficient.

Conversely, imagine you’re afraid of your boss and they’re constantly micromanaging your workload. Say they’ve requested you manually track data in Excel when there’s a free tool that automates the process. It’s less likely you’ll approach your boss to make the change, simply because you don’t want to rock the boat. And so you continue to do the task in an inefficient, manual way, likely spending more time to do it and producing less reliable data.

When we’re free to set our own approach to how we complete a task, and aren’t afraid of being chastised for either our process or the outcome, our brains are able to commit fully to solving the problem in front of us. The fear that of taking too long on a particular step or Googling too much disrupts your natural ability to find the best solution.

Being told exactly how something must be done, and being afraid to make a single error, forces you to balance a huge amount of emotional and mental labor. Imagine how you’ll feel if your boss tells you step-by-step how they want you to complete a project and the deadline by which each task must be completed by. To top it off, you’re sporadically bombarded with requests to see the final product. You’ll likely feel the following:

  • Fear that you’re doing it wrong, or that your boss will question your expertise if you look up alternative ways of approaching the problem.
  • Anxiety that you’re not working fast enough, and that a random request to see the project status won’t meet your boss’s expectations.
  • Dread that you may have to redo the project because you didn’t do it the way your boss wanted you to.

All of these take away from your ability to actually do the task, meaning you’re likely taking longer and producing something below your typical standards.

Zooming out from a single project, trust and respect seem to have positive impacts on employee job productivity, too. Some studies show that, when employees set their own schedules, they actually put in longer hours than if they were forced to check in and check out at set times each day. I can certainly relate to this — a trust and respect culture makes me want to work on what I’m doing because I truly love my line of work, and also I want to solve the problems I’m working on in the office.

Micromanagement and fear take a serious mental, emotional, and in some cases physical toll on the body. While fear and control may work in the short term, encouraging employees to work long hours, prioritize their job above their personal lives, and generate competition among employees, it isn’t sustainable. Anxiety and fear in the workplace significantly increase the rate of burnout — up to 3X the rate in other workplaces.

To me, higher job satisfaction is probably the biggest win-win outcome for trust and respect workplaces. If we’re happier at work — which we almost surely are, in a place where we feel heard and respected — we’re going to put in longer tenure. We’ll become experts not only in our craft, but also our industry and specific product. We’ll become more efficient, contribute more to company culture, and grow bigger teams. And employers will save money training new people every 6 to 12 months.

Lover of books (mostly fantasy/sci-fi), piano, running, and learning new things. Mostly writing about tech &LGBT+ stuff.

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