Leading with Trust

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves – The Debate Over Hybrid Work Comes Down to Trust

In my line of work, I get the opportunity to interact with leaders from a wide variety of organizations from a diverse range industries, including government and non-profits. A common factor that most are dealing with right now is adjusting to the new world of hybrid work.

Hybrid work means team members work from both the office and remotely. Some organizations employ a formal schedule that requires employees to be in the office certain days of the week, while others leave it to the discretion of the team member to be in the office as needed, usually for key meetings or events. Many organizations are trying to find the model that works best for their specific needs and goals.

The Great Trust Experiment

Although working virtually has been “a thing” for many years, the pandemic forced it upon organizations at a scale that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to adopt a new model of working if they wanted to survive. Employers had to extend massive amount of trust to their employees in what I have called “The Great Trust Experiment.” By most accounts, the shift has been a success, with organizations experiencing increased growth and productivity, and employees reporting higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.

But old habits die hard. Many organizations are either calling their employees back to the office full-time or requiring them to be in the office certain days of the week.

Why? Well, most companies are saying that employees’ physical presence in the office is required to foster a healthy organizational culture, or that in-person interaction is required for innovative and creative work to take place.

Are those important factors? Absolutely. Is being in the office a prerequisite for those things to flourish? No.

So, I’m calling B.S.

The Opposite of Trust is not Distrust—it’s Control

I think the root factor driving most of these decisions is control.

As Ken Blanchard and I point out in our new book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, distrust is not the opposite of trust. The opposite of trust is control.

We are in the early days of a transformation of how work is being defined in the 21st century. No longer is work a place you go to, but rather something you do. Since the very nature of work is being redefined, it’s also redefining the nature of leadership.

Since the industrial revolution, leadership has been governed by a command-and-control approach, where leaders were designated to make decisions (issue commands) and dictate (control) how the work is done. Employees have long been “human resources” that are merely a means to an end.

The digital age has rendered command-and-control leadership obsolete. For many occupations, work can be accomplished from literally anywhere, yet our mindset and approach to leadership is struggling to adapt to this new reality.

No Going Back to The “Old Days”

The genie is out of the bottle regarding remote work and there’s no putting it back in. The pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and they’ve learned there’s a better way. And unlike any time in the past, employees have the lion’s share of power to make decisions about where and how they want to work.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating against the value and necessity of in-person work. Nothing yet invented can replace human-to-human interaction, and I doubt it ever will (although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future technological innovation that closely mimics in-person interaction). I think in-person gatherings are critically important for team formation, bonding, and cultural development.

But I think it’s lazy leadership to blanketly mandate employees be in the office because “that’s what the office is for,” or “that’s how we did it before the pandemic.” I just had a conversation with a client this week who expressed her organization’s employees are struggling with being required to be in the office yet spend the entire day alone participating in virtual meetings.

A New Model of Leadership is Needed

We need more honest and introspective discussion about how organizations must shift in the years ahead if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We must adopt new mindsets about what leadership looks like and how our organizations operate in the future, rather than being stuck in our current mindsets of believing innovation/culture/teamwork/etc., can only happen when we’re together in person.

I think the future of work will look differently for each organization and employee. I think it will be a mosaic of options that take into account the unique needs of all the parties involved, but in order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Organizations need to let go of control and adopt a service-minded approach to leading.

Trusted servant leaders look to bring out the best in their team members. They put the needs of their followers ahead of their own. When team members believe their leader (and by extension, their organization) has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust grows by leaps and bounds.

There are many questions we need to answer as we seek to define what work looks like in the hybrid world. I don’t have all the answers, and in fact, probably only have one: trusted servant leaders will be key to unleashing the potential and power of people and organizations in the years ahead.

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