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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #5: Trust

Do managers exert control over their employee’s time and place because they don’t trust them to do their jobs unless they are closely monitored? Really? We’re talking responsible grown-ups here.

This paternalistic attitude that employees are like children who need constant supervision is obsolete in the age of the knowledge worker. The role of the manager of a creative team is to inspire, not to control. Micromanagement kills creativity.

Over the course of my career, I’ve managed creative teams in several companies both large and small. By far the most enlightened was HP in the eighties and nineties. The training program for new managers emphasized the company’s employee-centric culture. The philosophy was: treat your employees well. Do this, and they will create products that treat your customers well. If your customers are treated well, so, too, will your shareholders. Shareholder value was regarded as a byproduct of good management, but never as a focus. Fast forward to today when shareholders interests come first and employees are just “headcount” whose heads can be chopped off (metaphorically) at the first sign of fiscal distress.

Employees were so valued at HP that when the economy took a dive, rather than laying people off, everyone from the CEO to the janitor took a 10% pay cut – and took off work one extra day out of every ten. Why would you lose talented people – the engines of your success – just to sustain the stock price during a temporary economic slow-down? You’re going to need these people when things pick up again.

But I digress a bit. Back to the need for trust over control. The design problems that creatives must solve sometimes require weeks-long immersion to analyze all the data, form clear problem statements, conjure up concepts, reject them, and start all over again. For weeks, there may be no tangible progress. It may appear that they are not working. But then the breakthrough comes – a breakthrough that has the potential to transform the customer experience and thus the company’s fortunes. However, breakthroughs are not possible if the creative team’s manager doesn’t trust them to persevere until the design problem is solved, and to do so when and where they are most productive.

This doesn’t mean you ignore your employees for long periods of time. You still practice MBWA – Managing By Walking Around – even if it’s virtually. You still check in with them regularly – not to monitor their work but to clear away barriers, listen to their struggles and victories, and to offer advice (usually by asking a question rather than by offering a solution: “Have you thought about…?”). You always express confidence in their ability to solve the problem and that you trust them to do it – even when you have to gently tell them that they’re not there yet. Do this, and your talented designers will be motivated to go the extra mile to deliver great results.

Will you have employees who are goof-offs? Sure. They slip through the cracks occasionally. I had one direct report who did absolutely nothing for six months, but eventually his AWOL was exposed and he resigned. But you should not make a policy from the assumption that all employees will goof off unless they are constantly supervised. Trusting employees must be your default approach, even if you get burned sometimes.

Trust them first, then turn ‘em loose.

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