Do you work in a grown-up culture?

“If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” - Lao Tzu

Despite organisations wanting employees to become more autonomous, accountable, to work more proactively and collaboratively, and as a result, to improve employee experience, productivity and retention, it seems as though many organisations continue to have in place cultures, policies and rules that treat people like irresponsible kids, resulting in precisely the opposite of what they're trying to achieve…

At the core of this dichotomy, some might say, is a lack of trust. For several reasons, organisations have lost trust that employees can make responsible adult decisions for themselves about how to get their work done effectively and efficiently while adding value to the company. 

Not surprisingly, distrust begets distrust in return, and they reap what they sow.

“If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” - ao Tzu

So, if organisations, their leadership and management keep treating their employees like immature children they are just exacerbating the problem and creating the right conditions that will make them act like children while also making way for their best people to leave.

The consequences of these kinds of culture shapers.

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

"I feel overwhelmed and in complete burnout;" "It's hard to be constantly micromanaged;" "I don't feel comfortable speaking up;" "Nobody appreciates, recognises and values my work;" and "Different people are differently treated."

And if you need a new laptop, go on vacation or change something related to your work, do you have to ask permission, fill out forms and get it signed off by a dozen executives?

As consultants, we often assess organisations suffering from the boarding-school syndrome and an associated prison-like environment. They insist on excessive supervision and telling people where and when to work, what to do, how to dress, how to behave and so on.

These corporate cultures reward conformity to rules and following scripts, over initiative, creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

Most of these organisations undermine their employee's experience in a variety of ways that make it challenging for them to succeed in the jobs they were hired to do and to find a healthy and sustainable physical, psychological and emotional balance in their lives.

When an organisation constantly instils in people a set of codes, rulebooks, manuals and “best practices” put together by someone else (and probably coming from a different context), there’s no need for them to think, experiment or innovate, which prevents people from learning from their trials and errors, growing their knowledge and wisdom, and adapting to change fast.

When companies trust and deposit more confidence in rules than in their people, something is definitely very wrong!

It is pointless to talk about self-motivated and productive human beings if the basic, bedrock relationship resembles a parent-child relationship. 

It makes no sense to talk about hiring the right and most brilliant people if the organisation is riddled with fear-based, enforcing policies and rules that don't allow any kind of dissidence or threading into new ways of being and doing things. 

Most of the weak signals, symptoms and complaints we analyse through the narratives that we usually collect as part of the Uncover stage, at Agile Thinkers Consulting, show that employees feel that management treats them with disrespect, that they don't have the decision-making authority they need, that their work goes unrecognized, and that they do not feel free to voice their opinions openly, or when they do, they're not valued or taken into account for change and improvement initiatives. What this basically means is that employees feel they are being treated like children – not adults.

When organisations hire new people, they expect them to be as skilled as they claim to be, and competent with the responsibilities they are made well aware of when they first applied for the position. Yet, why is it that this trust disappears and the micromanaging begins with rules that inhibit performance, rather than enhance it the moment they’re onboarded? 

Mature adult professionals don’t need anyone to be breathing over their necks every five minutes to control or tell them what to do and how they should do it.

There's a huge difference between walking by to see who's working and making the work visible to everyone and paying attention to what people are delivering in the context of what success looks like for the organisation.

To be fair, some organisations do treat their employees like wise, capable adults and have made this an important aspect of their culture. These organisations, like Patagonia, expect people to go surfing when the surf’s up (because the better you meet people’s needs, the better they’ll meet yours), try to build an environment where people are empowered (we only need to empower employees if we disempowered them in the first place) and not treated like children who need to be disciplined.

They create a safe environment that fosters and is conducive to trust and freedom in executing, recognition and appreciation for the work done and flexibility to deal with all the vicissitudes of work and life, which are all basic ingredients of a grown-up culture.

Concluding remarks

An organisation that treats its employees like children sets them up to be upset, frustrated and unproductive.

Treating responsible adults in that kind of way is a sure-fire way to breed a working environment full of resentment and low morale that will greatly impact the customer and employee experience and the organisation's outcomes.

Organisations that put babysitter policies that try to control bad behaviours, rather than motivate good ones, send the message that employees are not capable of holding themselves accountable. These kinds of biased assumptions are usually rooted in parent-child mindsets, and often they’re also condescending. 

Organisations can enforce all the policies that they can think of, but that won't help or solve the situation because the bottom issue is (lack of) trust.

Employees in high-trust organisations are more productive, more engaged at work, collaborate better with their counterparts, and stay with their employers longer. They also suffer less chronic stress and feel better about their lives, factors that fuel higher performance.

Leading can be like first-time parenting, everyone else thinks they can do it better than others until they actually have to do it and reality hits.

“Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.” (John Wilmot)

Leaders and managers should recognize that we are all human, and we are all adults, so when they hire people for a job, they should trust that it will get done. They just need to focus on what is needed from them to set up people to be successful in their roles. They shouldn't be wanting to run an adult day care centre (unless that is really your business…).

Keep always in mind that the way you treat people sets the standards of what’s acceptable and the expectations of how they should behave. 

You get what you give, so, what kind of behaviours do you, as a leader and manager, want to send and get back from your team(s)? 

If you're in a leadership and managing position, ask yourself these questions:

  • If you can’t trust your employees to make good decisions about their work in order to do it effectively and efficiently, why did you hire them in the first place?

  • What is going to free, fuel, and inspire your employees to bring the best of themselves to work every day?

Ultimately, trust is cultivated by setting a clear intentional direction, giving people what they need to deliver it, and getting out of their way.

Cultures organically emerge within an organisation, they can't be created, enforced or managed. The most that can be done is to engender conditions that encourage certain behaviours.

We can influence the climate, but we can’t control the weather.

Like in Blue Zones, the secret lies in being immersed in the right environment, so things can occur almost naturally, where the healthy choice doesn’t even need to be a deliberate choice if it is the unavoidable choice.

At Agile Thinkers, we can support you and your teams by evaluating the current situation and finding ways to change how teams interact and deliver the business outcomes you’re expecting. Our vast experience in different industries and companies sizes provided the knowledge required to surpass the challenges you’re facing.

In the second part of this article, we will look at how we can develop and drive the ways of being and doing so that organisations can shape cultures that treat people like adults and reap the benefits of it.

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- Pedro Fernandes

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