In every group of people, someone is bound to cross the line once in a while. For instance, by disregarding agreements or by taking far greater advantage of their privileges than they should. The normal reaction is then to introduce new controls, create new policies or withdraw rights. The good are punished along with the bad, and everyone in the organisation gets entangled in a web of impossibilities. Which in turn leads to the complaint that there’s far too little initiative and innovation around.
If your trust is put to shame
I’m one of the partners at House of Performance. We work together on the basis of trust. This means that we have few rules within our firm, and that we each have a lot of personal responsibility. In essence, we have simply agreed to do as you wish to be done by.
One of the examples of this operational management method is that we have given all employees a company credit card. The principle for using this is: present it to pay for everything you need to carry out your consultancy work properly. For instance, a night at a hotel in the north of the country if you have to give a workshop there early the next day; a pack of spaghetti and some marshmallows for a creative session; or a dinner with a client you want to get to know better. No hassle with getting approvals or budgets. At the end of the month, everyone submits their receipts so that the administrative and tax matters can be settled properly. And that’s it.
Of course, we do look at the receipts once in a while to see what’s going out. This enables us to know what we’re spending our money on, which then gives us a basis on which to undertake action if necessary. For instance, we as a company started making widespread use of online research software after noticing that one of our advisors was claiming expenses for this. And we’ve also agreed with one another not to use the credit card to make advance payments for customers, because this too often resulted in problems with passing on these costs.
This approach doesn’t always go flawlessly. Recently, it went wrong. One of our colleagues used his credit card for purchases that took a very broad view of the principle ‘necessary to carry out your consultancy work’. A three-piece tailor-made suit, a pair of designer shoes, a set of knives made from Japanese steel, and two kilometres of Christmas lighting.
When this matter came up within our team of partners, I felt that we were faced with a fundamental choice. What was our decision to ‘work on the basis of trust’ actually worth? Should we just accept this incident? Or should we strengthen the rules regarding the credit card after all?
We chose to view this incident as no more than an incident, and to not alter the rules at all. We did speak to the employee involved, telling him that this was the only time anything like this would ever occur, and that if it ever did again then he could leave. Not long after that, he left of his own accord.
These days too, we sometimes have incidents whereby we feel that people have crossed a line. Not just with the credit card, but also with private use of the mobile telephone, or with self-invented conditions in the contracts drawn up with our clients. Each time this happens, the question is: should we introduce strict rules or controls? Or should we just accept these incidents? More and more, we have come to realise that working on trust also means that our trust will occasionally be put to shame. If at that point you clutch at rules rather than discussing the incident face to face, your trust is more of a thin veneer than worth its weight in gold.
Incidents will happen
If your trust is put to shame, don’t just write off the problem. By setting rules, you may well have the feeling that you’ve got everything under control, but in practice there will always be a new incident that you haven’t described, and for which you need to make up new rules. If you trust people, incidents are bound to occur. Initiate a discussion, and confer your trust upon that person again. It’s only when repeated or structural problems occur that it’s worth drawing the obvious conclusion as far as the individual or the entire organisation is concerned.