Should you manage employees by monitoring them? Or by trusting them?

Rogier van der Werf

Should you manage employees by monitoring them? Or by trusting them?

How should you manage employees?

Over the last few years, new working practices have been on the increase. As organisations are torn between old and new ways of work, we address the question: Should you manage employees by monitoring them? Or by trusting them?

Managers and employee engagement

Trusting employees works

Every year, Effectory International carries out a large number of multinational employee surveys.  The results of the employee surveys not only provide us with insights on HR themes like employee engagement, but also provide us with insights into the characteristics of what creates lasting success in organisations.

In organisations where success has been delivered year upon year, we see that employees are given the tools that enable them to positively impact the organisation. Employees are given the freedom to enact improvements that they, themselves, have suggested and are given the freedom to act, with a clear direction and within an agreed framework.

From working with our partners, we’ve seen that such freedom has improved motivation in employees, and has helped create organisations that are flexible enough to respond to change. We’ve seen that despite in seeming like an idealistic stance, managing employees based on trust can, and really does, work.

What would happen if, as of tomorrow, you leave your employees entirely to their own devices and trust that everything goes well?

Why didn’t it work for us?

For many years international organisations have managed employees by monitoring. Inspired by new ways of working, possible cost reductions and new technical possibilities, some organisations are suddenly switching to a management system based on trust. And yet, many of these organisations are experiencing the exact opposite of those organisations mentioned above. Managing employees based on trust doesn’t seem to work, or at least, not well enough to justify the switch of management styles. 

We regularly have discussions with organisations about their performance, and one of the issues to nearly always come up is giving employees more freedom. Organisations want to allow their employees to have more freedom, and want to use trust as a foundation on which to manage them. The problem lies in that switching suddenly to management based on trust is often too big of a change.

Managing employee engagement

Managing employee engagement 

Discover best practices and case studies on the six key areas that provide the foundation for high engagement at work.

Download your free copy today

How can organisations move towards an environment of trust and freedom?

Whenever we approach the topic with our partners, we pose the following question: “What would happen if, starting from tomorrow, you were to leave your employees entirely to their own devices and trust everything goes well?”

In some cases the response to our question is positive. In many cases, it’s not. Such responses aren’t surprising considering the bluntness of the question, but when employees are given so much freedom in so little time, there is a big chance that things will go wrong. Despite this, we see many organisations unwittingly and unintentionally applying such a strategy of sudden change.

The following metaphor helps clearly explain the situation:

Today is the big day. You’re going to teach a small child to ride a bike for the first time. You put the bike on the street, propped up on a stand, take two steps back, and trust everything will go smoothly. The small child on the bike looks at you in a puzzled manner, yet you simply look back at them.  You are, after all, teaching them to ride a bike on the basis that you trust them to be able to do it.

What are the chances that the child simply hops on the bike, and rides down the street with a grin on their face? As long as the above situation remains, what’s likely to happen to their will and motivation to ride a bike?

Is your manager really open to feedback?

The unwitting strategy

As discussed above, many organisations that change from monitoring employees to trusting employees are unwittingly and unintentionally applying a strategy that is likely to fail.

Often criteria, such as flexi-places, flexi-hours and output-orientated working etc. are created, and yet due to the sudden change managers and employees are not fully able to handle the new mix of freedom and responsibility. If initial results are disappointing, critics are quick to point out that it is confirmation that managing employees on trust, and the freedom that accompanies it, doesn’t work.

Are good people managers a pain in the ass?

A fair assessment?

Heading back to the metaphor, I can remember that the first that my parents taught me to ride a bike. They first gave me instructions, and then we practiced together for as long as it took for me to get the hang of things.  Naturally, whilst I was practicing, my parents were there to offer me a hand so that I remained on the bike.

After gradual encouragement from my parents, my confidence grew and I began to require fewer and fewer instructions. Soon after, and without realising it, I was able to ride my bike independently of my parents. Despite my progress, I still needed reassurance from time to time, and to know that my parents were still there for me- until finally I was able to confidently ride my bike without them.

In discussions with organisation, we often use the above to address the issues that come when organisations unwittingly adopt a strategy of quick change and little support. We ask:

“What would happen if you were to apply the same strategy that was applied when you learnt to ride a bike, to your employees when they’re given more freedom?

Monitor or trust?

Organisations function at their best when employees experience the right mix of freedom and responsibility. Our experience with employee surveys shows us that employees are happiest when they have a good balance between freedom and responsibility, and in the long term, management based on trust is most certainly more sustainable. Management by trust creates successful, flexible and innovative organisations, where employees want to work.

3 ways managers can improve development opportunities

The key to success

Fundamental to the success of creating more freedom for employees, is staying in touch with them.

Managing on the basis of trust is not the same as suddenly granting employees absolute freedom. It is a process that organisations need to embark on with their employees, and requires a different set of beliefs and conduct from the organisation, managers and employees. Furthermore, it requires adequate training and assistance.

It’s vital that everyone within the organisation works towards the right balance between freedom and responsibility. Only by staying in touch with employees will organisations know what employees need to find a good balance, and only by staying in touch with employees will organisations also know what kind of guidance, leadership and management style is required.

For additional helpful tips on employee transition, read the classic book, ‘Situational Leadership’ by Ken Blanchard & Paul Hersey’