The effects of an organizational culture built on trust

What a lack of trust can do to a team

Lincoln Loop has proven that a more trusting workplace is a happier and more productive workplace.

Trust
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Lincoln Loop is an open organization in many ways. We're distributed across 7 time zones. We have no central headquarters. All members of our core team can see all our financials (literally every penny earned or spent) and choose their own salaries. We have an open vacation policy and let people set their own work schedules.

When I tell people how Lincoln Loop operates, the response is typically shock and disbelief followed by a long list of reasons their companies could never operate this way. I often hear things like:

  • "We'd go broke if we let people choose their salaries!"
  • "Nobody would ever come to work if we let them choose their own schedules!"
  • "Employees would take advantage of an open vacation policy!"

What I really hear when business owners tell me this is: "I don't trust my employees."

When you try to control people with a "my way or the highway" approach, you stifle creativity and often productivity.

But that attitude is a direct result of outdated command-and-control-style of management. And its effects on creativity and productivity are both negative and profound. At Lincoln Loop, we've learned how placing a high value on organizational trust makes for a happier, more productive workplace.

Productivity drains

Managers who don't trust employees frequently use rules and regulations to box those employees in—the idea being, "with enough rules, there won't be any leeway for employees to make mistakes or cause problems." They try to regulate their way to efficiency.

But when you try to control people with a "my way or the highway" approach, you stifle creativity and often productivity. People aren't all round pegs managers can shove in the round holes they've created.

Here's an easy example of this in practice. A company policy may dictate that people must be in their offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every work day. If you ask workers, though, many will tell you the office is where they are least productive. What's more important to the company, productivity or having warm bodies in the office for a specified period of time? The rule doesn't support the purpose of the company.

Dee Hock, the innovative founder of Visa, said it well:

To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they'll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways.

Morale killers

Excessive workplace rules are so commonplace that we've become complacent about them. We don't look at the emotional effect they're having on people.

Consider a slightly different scenario but with similar rules. What if somebody invited you to a dinner party, but made a point to tell you what clothes to wear and how to comb your hair and brush your teeth before coming over? The implication here is that you're incapable of making good decisions on your own. You might treat a child like this—but not a grown adult. So why are we complacent with it in the workplace?

When you treat your employees like children, don't be surprised if you also have issues with morale—people only doing the bare minimum and counting down the minutes until the end of the day.

Reversing the trend

The bottom line, though, is that distrust breeds more distrust. When management communicates a lack of trust to employees, those employees will reciprocate with a lack of trust for management. When this relationship becomes adversarial, the organization breaks down. Retaining employees becomes difficult and the workplace becomes toxic.

At Lincoln Loop, our emphasis on trust has led to results that make me extremely proud.

At Lincoln Loop, we work with trustworthy people. We give them tasks and trust them to complete them however they see fit. If their work requires collaboration, we assume they'll ensure that happens. If meeting a deadline is necessary, we likewise assume they'll meet it or raise a flag if they can't.

Where, when, or how people complete their tasks are rarely of importance to us. Instead, we focus our energy on making sure people understand the big picture: how their task fits into the company's mission and goals.

Our trust in our team lets us be very light on rules without devolving into anarchy. We share an explicit set of core values, which everyone uses to guide their decisions and daily work. When you work with good people and you you trust them to do their jobs, guess what? They do!

And not only that, but they're much happier doing them. Instead of being a nameless cog in a machine, they feel empowered to make decisions that are important to the business. That trust breeds a sense of community and teamwork far more effectively than any motivational speaker or company holiday party ever could.

At Lincoln Loop, our emphasis on trust has led to results that make me extremely proud. Most members of our core team have been with the company for more than eight years (in an industry where even two years sounds like the norm). Major competitors have pursued many of them, presumably offering more money and better tangible benefits. From what I hear, however, those interviews typically last until they ask about open practices and policies—like remote work and flexible hours. Our open organization always beats what they have to offer.

About the author

Peter Baumgartner - Peter is the founder at Lincoln Loop, a web agency specializing in the open source Django web framework. He is constantly learning and is well-versed in many technical disciplines including DevOps, scaling, back-end, and front-end development. Peter is a frequent speaker at DjangoCon and has given talks at PyCon and SaltConf as well. In 2013 he co-authored the book High Performance...