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Balancing trust and control – using 'disruption' to develop more effective leadership

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This year’s rapid transition to remote work presents leaders with a unique opportunity to make their organisations more effective. Having large numbers of employees suddenly working from home has exposed issues that were obscured before. Many leaders will need new approaches in this environment: effectively balancing trust with control is a great place to start. The good news is that this is a skill that transfers to any work environment.

recent Harvard Business Review article described this year’s pandemic-led shift to remote work as the “largest work from home experiment in history.” Understandably, many leaders expected the experiment to fail, fearing sustained reductions in their team’s productivity. It’s too early to declare victory, but a number of sources suggest that on average, companies and workers have adapted well.

Surveys conducted with different samples of knowledge workers have pointed to workdays that are 10-20% longer as workers reallocate time that used to go into commuting; more of those work hours spent on core tasks and less on email and meetings; and consistently high self-reported productivity.

So while many businesses did experience a dip as teams adapted to new tools and operating rhythms, on average, productivity appears to have returned to normal.

As with any average, however, there’s plenty of variation around the mean. What’s driving success for the star performers, who are seeing their teams become even more productive? Conversely, what issues are creating sustained problems, and how can leaders solve them? And most importantly – what can this massive experiment teach us about how to make teams more successful under any circumstances, regardless of where they’re physically working? 

We’ll assume that by now most leaders have the basics in place for their remote teams to be successful; we’ve written previously about how to make remote working work and getting productivity from your remote team. Beyond those basics, we’re observing a critical capability thatthis year’s most successful leaders are applying to help their teams work well remotely: the ability to set and then manage to clear expectations, by -

  1. Managing outcomes, not activities
  2. Adjusting leadership style to the team’s current capability level
  3. Building shared values and trust

Managing outcomes, not activities

When leaders complain they’re not able to manage their people effectively when they are not in the office together, often what they are really complaining about is being unable to observe their activities. 

Lenin is often quoted as having said, ‘trust is good, but control is better’. For most of the twentieth century, management practices seemed to agree with him: they closely monitored staff activities against time. The ‘punch in, punch out’ clock system measured when employees arrived and left, or took their breaks. Job descriptions laid out tasks and activities. Many would have struggled to articulate the same jobs in terms of outcomes, much less how those outcomes connected up to team, department and ultimately organisational goals.

We’ve seen slow improvement on this front, but it’s a persistent challenge, particularly in knowledge working teams. Here, outcomes are often more challenging to describe and assess than are the activities intended to produce them However, increasingly we’re seeing leaders that excel at managing outcomes rather than activities achieve better results with their teams. That’s been true for decades, but the sudden shift to remote work has shone a bright light on the difference. In the most responsive companies, it has forced a rapid swing towards rewarding staff for the outcomes they achieve and the time taken to generate them, not dictating how they should spend their day. In turn, workers are necessarily taking on greater responsibility for how they allocate time, and how they approach their work. 

If you’re worried about whether your staff are slacking off at home, now is the time to clarify what outcomes you expect them to achieve, over what timeframes. How they achieve this now becomes much more their own responsibility. Consequently, once everyone is clear and the team is delivering, the actual hours worked become much less relevant. 

While working with us to improve market share, the management team at a national broadband provider in South East Asia realised they needed to revise how they managed their Customer Care division. Until then, agents had been managed on activity volumes such as the number of calls they completed, the duration of those calls, and ‘right first time’ resolution. Supervisors were focused on keeping operators as busy as possible, rigorously managing staffing to match demand.

With a clear imperative to retain customers while keeping costs low, the team decided to refocus on Relational NPS as the key metric – accepting that this meant that operators may not consistently meet their existing operating targets. This shift in focus to customer experience, a true outcome metric, allowed the management team to identify and scale behaviours that supported that outcome.

This encouraged staff to experiment with new approaches, including end-to-end case management, and introduced new cross-functional processes to deal with core issues that were driving many calls, such as technicians not arriving to fix a fault at the agreed time, or incorrect billing. This meant that in the short term, contact centre costs increased slightly, but as the team steadily resolved root cause issues, call volumes and thus costs decreased over the longer term. 

Together, these changes produced significantly better customer experience, and in turn, led to viral customer recommendations on social media – a game-changer for any company in its quest for market share.

Adjusting leadership style to the team’s capability

With everyone clear on outcomes, attention shifts to how best to manage them. The importance of being able to adjust your leadership style to the skills and motivation of your staff is not a new idea. However, the sudden shift to remote work has brought that need into much sharper relief, exposing pre-existing issues and adding new ones to deal with.

Situational leadership, as it was first outlined by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1969, proposes that leaders adjust the level of support they provide to team members based on their level of commitment (highly committed workers require less support to stay motivated), and the level of direction they provide based on the team member’s competence (highly skilled workers require less direction). A simpler way to think about these dimensions is in terms of trust vs. control: highly skilled and motivated team members warrant a higher level of trust; those struggling on one or both dimensions probably require a little more control to perform well.

It’s almost inevitable that at some point, the team will fall short of what is expected. In these cases, diagnosing non-delivery is key: one-offs that are quickly addressed are a positive sign. They mean team members are learning new skills, and when leaders respond with coaching and encouragement, the team’s self-confidence grows and delivery improves.

Leaders also need to bear in mind that even the capability of their strongest team member can drop temporarily, and be ready to adjust as required. Any change, including a shift to remote working arrangements or outcomes-based management, may re-set some important elements of a team’s existing skills and motivation. Again, this has always been true, but this year’s events have posed far wider challenges of this kind than would normally be the case, in turn placing leaders’ skill in sensing and adjusting to capability and motivation shifts in particularly sharp focus.

In short, leaders need to strike the right balance between providing support and continuing to set high expectations for delivery for their teams. Close control is generally only of value where consistency is key and/or risk is high. Exerting too much control wastes everyone’s time, and demotivates most people. Instead, leaders will increasingly need to drive the right behaviours through shared values and trust.

Building shared values and trust

Building trust works in both directions: leaders need to give their teams opportunities to show they merit trust, accepting and managing the risk of non-delivery, and celebrating successes achieved in line with shared values; but they also need to earn the team’s trust themselves. By applying absolute consistency in modelling shared values, and rigorous fairness in both addressing non-delivery and rewarding excellent work, leaders build their team’s trust in them

Trust also requires psychological safety. For leaders to accurately assess how to lead their team, members need to feel safe to flag where they’re running into issues, and to ask for help. As the trust equation suggests, leaders must foster relationships characterised by openness and authenticity (“intimacy”), and genuine care for the team’s success that’s beyond self-interest. 

Shared values, implemented well, support the key elements required to build trust. They support credibility and reliability by guiding behaviours and providing a framework for fair feedback; and they support the sense of belonging teams need for psychological safety, enabling openness, authenticity, and a willingness to put the team first. They create a shared language that guides behaviour beyond what defining outcomes can achieve – defining the basics of how team members should behave in pursuing the outcomes they’re accountable for.

In 2007, a patient care scandal at the Stafford Hospital in England drew attention to systemic issues at the National Health Service. Two public enquiries drew attention not only to understaffing and inadequate skills, but also to “a disturbing lack of compassion” towards patients. The government’s response specifically addressed values, recognising that “a defensive culture – concerned more with reputation, money and targets – had overwhelmed the compassionate values that underpin the NHS.”

A significant element of the response was the Compassion in Practice strategy. While the overall impact of the strategy is difficult to measure, one outcome has been consistently highlighted: it gave leaders permission to champion quality of care for patients at times when it may otherwise have been sacrificed in the quest to meet financial and throughput targets.

Conclusion

Building trust can be especially hard for managers used to monitoring activity via a hierarchical command-and-control leadership style. It takes effort, but the pay-off is significant. Leaders shouldn’t view sustained issues with remote work as a fact of life, or a problem to be borne until the pandemic blows over. Instead, they offer a valuable opportunity for leaders to move towards trust-based management.