In our virtual teams training [Ed: at Global Integration], we often talk about the right balance of trust and control for a team. We run an exercise with a grid on the floor asking people to move around in answer to different questions about their personal preferences and their response to different business situations.
When offered the opportunity to work in a high trust or high control environment, 80% or more of people around the world choose the high trust option. But when we probe them about what having high trust means to them it is very often about them having control rather than someone else.
Most people like to be in control, but few people like to be controlled. So perhaps the question isn’t about control and trust but more about where trust is actually exercised.
In a leader and follower relationshi,p this is an important perspective. In order to give away control, the leader needs to have trust. In order to earn the right to exercise control, a follower needs to have built confidence in the leader. Trust is an essential enabler of empowerment and decentralized control.
Unfortunately, today’s complex organizations make trust harder to build. We have more limited face-to-face time together and communication across cultures and through technology can introduce misunderstandings. It can also be harder to recognize and solve trust problems in a distributed team when people rarely get face-to-face. Someone who’s very frustrated on a conference call may just put their colleague on hold for a minute and complain to a colleague rather than be explicit about the problem.
In manufacturing, the Japanese quality revolution led to decentralization of control of product quality. Instead of sending a product to quality control for checking, we gave the operators online the skills, information and authority to monitor their own quality. Quality improved, cost reduced and job satisfaction increased – everybody won!
Trust building is different in distributed virtual and global organizations. It needs to be an explicit part of a leader’s toolkit. It used to be free by-product of proximity, but today we need to organize for it.
And don’t forget that it is always two-way. When I speak to individuals who don’t feel empowered, or who even feel micromanaged, I always ask them “What have you done to earn the right to be left alone?” If we don’t make our bosses feel confident in our competence and responsiveness, then why on earth would they give us more autonomy?
Trust and control are two sides of the same coin. If I trust you only to control you, and the more I control you the more I undermine trust, the critical question will be: “who gets to exercise the control?”