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If You Think Trusting Your Employees More is the Answer, You Might Want to Think Again

Why trust could actually be harming employees' productivity, if you fail to avoid its pitfalls.

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The future of work is upon us. Well, kinda. More people than ever, of course, are transitioning to remote work as a consequence of the pandemic. According to a mid-2020 Pew Research Center report, among those individuals who considered their jobs able to be performed away from the office, only 20% reported working remotely most or part of the time prior to the pandemic. That number has now jumped to 71%. And now that the monkey is out of the bag, as it were, there’s little reason to believe it’ll be put back in. 

Leaders are having to quickly adapt to these changes. Such efforts include altering leadership style, providing flexible work arrangements and rethinking how to divide and structure tasks among subordinates. Adapting has also required them to grapple with how much trust to place in team members, considering how much of what employees are now doing on a day-to-day basis is out of sight. This has prompted a nearly universal response: leaders need to place more trust in them. In many ways this makes sense. As people have switched to remote work, they’ve shown they can be at least as productive working remotely as they were in the office. So, yes, trusting employees more is probably a good move. Or is it? The hitch is that, like most things in life — including those we tend to view as inherently good — more is not always better.  

This, of course, is not an indictment against trust itself, or trust placed in employees. As kitschy as it might sound, it really is a foundation upon which all of our institutions are partially built and sustained — the proverbial glue that motivates individuals with potentially disparate interests and values to adhere to economic and social obligations. Likewise, there has been much written and researched about performance-enhancing effects that occur when leaders trust employees. 

Related: Do Employees Trust Robots More than Company Leaders?

But there is also a competing observation, likewise based on research, that more trust is not always the solution and, in some cases, can cause more harm than good. According to a 2014 Academy of Management Journal article, feeling trusted at work can be actually be emotionally draining, as employees worry about upholding a positive image and attend to the additional obligations and demands that often come with increased trust.

And speaking of additional responsibility, not all employees want more of it. Additional Academy of Management Journal research has shown what happens when managers allocate more trust to those employees who would prefer to go without it: they are likely to feel that their needs have been ignored and start reducing work effort. So, rather than making employees more productive and happier, trusting them more may actually be doing the opposite.  

There are, however, a few ways you can leverage trust to get the most out of it while avoiding the pitfalls.

Related: Is Your "Best" Employee Really Your Most Toxic?

Manage fears

Prior to academia, I worked in construction for the better part of a decade, and still remember the first time the boss left me in charge on site. I was excited, but also anxious. “I could screw this up,” I thought, “never again to be trusted to lead in the boss’ stead and dreams of my own HGTV show reduced to sawdust.” Such is the burden that often comes with feeling trusted. The problem is that some (maybe all) of the pressure employees experience when they feel trusted is of this self-imposed variety — the “What if?”s that creep uninvited into our psyche. But it’s possible to alleviate these burdens, mostly by reassuring employees that it is okay to fail, at least occasionally. Of course, there may be occasions where failure is not okay, but communicating these expectations up front gives employees a clear and consistent idea of what is and what’s not at stake when they accept the trust you so graciously imposed on them. 

Set expectations: the good and the bad

Relatedly, be upfront and transparent with employees with respect to the additional responsibilities and demands that are likely to come with more trust. This might seem, at first glance, somewhat inconsistent. After all, if you truly trusted the employee, you wouldn’t need to question whether they can handle additional responsibility, but this is a mistake. Even (nay, especially) some of your most trusted employees can eventually become overwhelmed and burnt out with additional demands on their time. Consider it somewhat akin to a realistic job preview and convey to staff members the opportunities additional trust could bring, along with the expected challenges. 

Related: What Does a 'Realistic Job Preview' Entail?

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