In People We Trust: Let’s Build Companies Like We Believe It

Woman suspended with umbrella against yellow wall. Trust, self-management, holacracy, sociocracy, teal organizations
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Last year was a lot. By October, with the US election looming, my existential dread about the state of the world reached an all-time high. Thankfully, just at the same time, I read the latest book by historian and author Rutger Bregman called Humankind: A Hopeful History.

The book gave me the hope I needed to get through the election and whatever came after. As someone who thinks about how companies can do better, it also gave me insight into what needs to be at the heart of any initiative to improve our working lives: trust.

If we trust people, we can confidently implement high-trust approaches in our organizations. We can breakdown the hierarchies that we’re used to. We can create workplaces that recognize our humanity.

Introducing homo puppy

The premise of Bregman’s book is that people, by nature, are genuinely good (or decent, as Bregman prefers) and that we work best when we do it collectively. The book argues against the belief that, when left to our own devices, humans are just power-hungry monsters. Instead, our innate friendliness (which was a smart survival mechanism) and collective approach are what make us strong. In Bregman’s turn-of-phrase, we are homo puppy.

Bregman debunks famous experiments and theories to show that we prefer to avoid engaging in conflict. Yes, power can corrupt. People can be manipulated. But Bregman believes our current state of affairs isn’t inevitable. We just need to change our mindset.

In people we trust

This is where trust comes in. If we believe people are good (decent), then we should take a trusting approach to how we interact with them, even though we know we may get burnt by someone now and then.

Trust is a word that’s popular in current management thinking: show employees you trust them and they will work their best. High-trust companies report less stress, higher productivity, fewer sick days and more life satisfaction. The more trust a person feels, the higher their level of oxytocin.

In practice, this usually means steps toward open communication, encouraging risk, allowing work day flexibility and more individual autonomy. These are signals of trust, but don’t necessarily mean trust is built into the system. We need to take trust a step further.

Implement trust through structural change

In his book, Bregman gives examples of companies that have built trust into their structures. While there are a few approaches around, these high-trust structures often include:

  • self-management
  • distributed authority/decision-making
  • self-organizing, cross-functional teams
  • radical transparency
  • accepting the wholeness of people
  • striving for a higher purpose
Wall with paint and word Together. Trust, self-management, holacracy, sociocracy, teal organizations
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Self-management

Self-management is about empowerment and autonomy, i.e. no bosses. Buurtzorg, a Dutch community- and home-based care company, is one of Bregman’s examples. They have small self-managing, autonomous teams of nurses who make their own clinical and operational decisions. They self-monitor their performances and don’t have the same heavy administrative burden many health care workers experience. Another popular example, Morning Star, a the tomato processing company, has no bosses and no managers. Any staff member can suggest improvements or requests for equipment.

Distributed authority/decision-making

Companies that champion high-trust structures and policies aren’t striving to work through consensus or democratic governance, nor do they want to be. Many of these companies instead work by consent and have distributed authority. Decision-making is pushed down as far as possible, although there are individuals who can ultimately make final decisions. Advice and perspectives must be collected before a decision is made. Authority is about expertise and experience, not a title.

Self-organizing, cross-functional teams

This is a familiar concept in agile project management. A team includes all the roles that are needed to complete a project, so that they are not siloed and not dependent on others outside of the team. The team decides how to best accomplish their purpose. One popular high-trust framework, holacracy, sets out a structure of self-organized “circles” that have a clear purpose and accountabilities and are made up of roles. While there are duties to fulfill, employees can decide how to best complete them and a person can have multiple roles.

Radical transparency

Radical transparency includes open communication, company-wide meetings that listen to employees and answer their questions, transparent decision-making, real-time performance data and access to financial data. So, instead of just being told what to do, employees have the ability to question and self-manage based on a clear context. This doesn’t mean a company has to be transparent about salaries, for example, but a move to a high-trust approach will likely require a rethink about a compensation structure. Financial literacy is important to foster so that employees can engage in open-book management.

Accepting the wholeness of people/Striving for a higher purpose

Teal organizations is a popular paradigm, a way to view companies that have reached a “breakthrough”: high autonomy through self-management, an environment that recognizes peoples’ wholeness and strategies based on an “evolutionary” purpose. Teal is a concept, not a blueprint; it’s a mindset to aspire to.

To recognize peoples’ wholeness, a set of practices is recommended. Self-management is at the top of the list because it does away with the hierarchy that can create conflict. Wholeness is also about the physical space where people work, supporting personal development and managing conflict. The ideal teal organization also defines the difference it wants to make in its community and marketplace.

There is no one-size-fits-all for a high-trust approach. It’s hard to change company culture and individual mindsets. Currently, there are over 1,000 holacracy organizations. Both Zappos and Medium implemented holacracy, but have modified their approaches and maintained similar principles. Other organizations have fared better. Companies must still work hard to avoid pay inequities and old power dynamics.

We need to consider the possibilities beyond the window-dressing of trust. We can change internal structures to reflect a new way of working and to embody trust for the people we work with. The pandemic has showed us how important human connection is for our health and happiness. We’ve realized who the essential workers are and the dignity they should be afforded. Trust and community are critical to our survival. Our workplaces should reflect this, too.

Further reading:

If Self-Management Is Such a Great Idea, Why Aren’t More Companies Doing It? (Rick Wartzman, Forbes)

Sociocracy — basic concepts and principles (Sociocracy for All)

Beyond the Holacracy Hype (Bernstein et al., Harvard Business Review)

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months (Rutger Bregman, The Guardian UK)

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Amy Coulterman

Amy Coulterman

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Attempting to link a non-profit mindset to the corporate world. Corporate social responsibility | social impact | Toronto, Canada | https://amycoulterman.com