Deciding whether a ruler should be loved or feared, Niccolò Machiavelli opted for the latter in his most famous tract, The Prince (1513). He was, of course, at the time shamelessly sucking up to Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of Florence, in the hope of favour. He had just been forced to leave the kingdom as a political exile, after all.
Having studied the dubious methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) he backed the option that looked most promising, holding that the dominance of our own interests would always result in us needing the hearty and credible threat of a beating to comply with direction. Trust didn’t come into it if fear was available and deliverable. This was realistic politics. His work became the operating manual of every unprincipled power-intoxicated shyster thereafter and still resonates with bespoke-tailored autocratic wannabes half a millennium later.
We’ve been saddled with the idea of realpolitik ever since, even though the actual term wasn’t coined by journalist Ludwig von Rochau until 1853. Sun Tzu, beloved guru of the Boardroom Book Club, was ploughing this groove long before even Machiavelli. Practical, pragmatic, opportunistic. How it is rather than how we think or believe it should be or want or strive for it to be.
By this mantra, we’re lumbered with the fact that humans are fundamentally devious where power is at stake — and that power is always at stake. Even space is political, as Lefebvre noted. There’s a sense too in this idea that there can never be enough power. History is awash with examples of demagogues who’ve risen within a supportive nucleus only at the appropriate time to violently peel it away, creating a safe distance from anyone with similar designs. There are many of them with us today, some in surprising places. Of course, in thought and practice it’s been an almost entirely privileged male domain. Given its tradition, that we can now recognise and call it out as such constitutes progress, if not far too little.
Realpolitik ports itself into the innately political modern workplace, re-sizing and reshaping to fit. Therein, trust is possibly the most over-promised, over-promoted, under-delivered and invisible workplace idea — as something we can identify and seek — of them all. And it’s a crowded field. Just about everyone agrees that trust matters and it’s important. No-one’s going to tell us it’s irrelevant. At least to our face. So, we could be forgiven for thinking that it’s on every breath, flourishing between the slabs of MDF, crackling across the Wi-Fi, lubricating our every interaction. But it’s not. At least not in the ways we imagine it should.
Because even Niccolò failed to acknowledge that trust underpins every aspect of human existence. Society is trust. It’s people doing what they say they’re going to do. Confucius was onto this when he said, “I wouldn’t know what to do with someone whose word cannot be trusted. How would you drive a wagon without a yoke or a chariot without a crossbar?” Far from the Hobbesian nightmare of a life that’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” conceived in the days when philosophers would imagine what it was all like before their wisdom was given to world that didn’t realise it was needed.
Even the most primitive of societies had trust. A “war of all against all” as Hobbes would have it would mean nothing ever got made, built or operated, as we’d be pre-occupied with fighting everyone else — rather like the chaotic English Civil Wars that provided the fearful context for his famous work, Leviathan (1651), from which these quotes are taken. Humanity would have all been over rather quickly.
It explains our horror when events appear to slip through a tear in the fabric of reality and someone does something randomly horrific. Mass shootings, common in countries where the instruments of death are readily available, but not unknown in others too, are a modern example. Investigation usually exposes seething resentment, mental vulnerability or indoctrination. Or all the above. Motive, however remote from our understanding, emerges.
Like an iceberg, below the waterline there’s the everyday, fundamental and unconscious trust that just is, that ensures society functions, and we don’t all arbitrarily butcher one another at the supermarket checkout; and that which shows itself, conscious and negotiable. We’re dealing in the workplace with the latter.
Trust is a simple idea, and remarkably simple to practice. We just have to want to. At its heart, it helps us all get stuff done, confident that there’ll be no negative repercussions. We can trust someone (use it), show we trust someone (gift it) and accept it being gifted to us (take it). Each of which can be conscious or unconscious, rationalised or instinctive. It’s catchy too. Ernest Hemingway, in a private letter, once wrote: “The way to make people trust-worthy is to trust them.” It doesn’t get simpler than that. Mistrust is equally viral. Only trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy, while mistrust is easy to build and monstrous to repair.
Somewhere in the no-person’s land between the two is doubt, a form of relationship purgatory common in the workplace, where we’re thrown together with people we’re told — or often it’s merely implied — are “on the same side.” Supposedly offered as a comfort, it can often feel like a warning. At least facing those not on our side, wearing different colours, we can be justified in our doubt. But we’re never entirely sure. Even, ridiculously, with those people we’ve had a say in bringing into the team or with those that have brought us in, where validation by others has been sought, where eyes have met, and we’ve had a peek through to the soul.
Our success or failure therefore hangs by its gossamer thread. We’re cautious, hesitant, non-committal. Like an apprentice plasterer we blotch caveats into every crevice in our interactions. We leave doors ajar, escape routes from our assurances, as we see them similarly left by those with whom we interact. In our in-between state the best we can offer or be offered is the benefit of the doubt. This implies trust can be used selectively, deployed, weaponised. It’s unsettling, while also being strangely comforting, to know that “yes” always translates as “possibly.” Even the language of trust is innately diluted daily.
Beyond the security barriers, we’re dealing with the tiny sliver of trust that makes all the difference. We can’t possibly be who we think we are. We haven’t done what we said we have. We can’t do what we say we can do. We can’t want what we say we want. It’ll only be believed when it’s seen. And even when seen it may not be believed. That it happens to us, and we resent being made to feel this way, we respond in the natural manner. We perpetuate it. We don’t believe we deserve to feel crap alone. The fundamental difficulty with overt displays of trust is that it’s tough to gift them when all around are refusing to do likewise. We offer ourselves up for exploitation. Best, therefore, not to, just in case.
And so, we get to the idea that trust at work has to be earned. While the involuntary societal interactions between us are accepted, for everything else we begin with an empty slate. There are no universal rules or norms about how much we must do to earn trust, or what form it takes. A minor beneficial act — like an unexpected latte? A month of affirmation? Taking one for the team where the consequences are notable but unlikely to be lasting? Fishing them from a frozen pond into which they recklessly dived to save their cockapoo on a mid-February afternoon?
No, it’s a matter of the arbitrary judgment of the beholder. Similarly, we’re never entirely sure when what has been earned might be spent. The dog-rescue induced pneumonia may have been for nothing after failing to agree with an unworkable suggestion made in a meeting no-one wanted to be at.
Trust is often the missing ingredient in workplace myth. Take the moments of serendipity where, adjacent to an item of office detritus, we achieve the ultimate corporate connection, a monetizable idea. In a story told only by content-starved bloggers and first-role workplace designers, we supposedly find common interest and intent in the spark of friction from our accidental encounters.
The importance of these “watercooler moments” — forgetting the fact that the device is usually stationed somewhere no-one wants to loiter for any longer than it takes to hydrate — has been massively overplayed. There’s precious little evidence that they yield what the myth portrays, because unless trust already exists between the participants, conversations of the type imagined, with their open sharing of insights and ideas, don’t happen. That’s not to say that such an interaction may not prove to be the first tentative step toward a relationship that later proves fruitful.
Yet the significance of these interactions has similarly been underplayed. They’re so often personal exchanges between those where trust already exists. It’s because there’s trust that confidences can be exchanged, reassurances given, fears put to rest. They’re the vital and necessary moments in which we find calm. Not where amazing ideas are born. Yet no-one creates myths about that kind of thing.
Trust operates at an individual and a group level. It’s complex enough at the former, but geometrically problematic at the latter.
For 30 years the idea of ‘psychological safety’ has rattled around predominantly American academia, unable to break the shackles of the original moniker gifted by William Kahn. Rarely is he credited with it. He suggested this was a condition where we can show ourselves without fear of judgment. An open rather than a safe space. It’s a vital, non-negotiable and exception-free condition of an un-fucked workplace.
It’s strange that it needs a term or definition at all, but that’s essentially because in most workplaces it’s absent. Where it exists, it erodes stress, speeds transactions between us and builds social cohesion. Yet if we can’t explain it, if no-one knows enough of its criticality to demand it, if no-one feels as though it can possibly apply to them, if we feel ridiculous saying it, if it’s kept conveniently caged in a shaded corner of introspection, it’s utterly pointless. Perhaps that was always the plan?
The term also omits to include physical safety, the basis of the #MeToo movement that began in 2017 where the threat or actuality of personal harm to women in the workplace prompted a global movement to identify and, where possible, prosecute the perpetrators. It’s all very well feeling safe to think or say something, but trust extends to knowing that sexual harassment or attack isn’t a likely outcome of our interactions. Or that when it occurs, disbelief that it could have done so — or even blame of the recipient, as the perpetrator becomes the victim — an all-too likely response, as was evaluated in the previous chapter.
The real aim is therefore simply safety. No defining prefix needed, beautifully simple. Without the fundamental condition of safety — to think, feel and act, the total human experience — trust doesn’t stand a living chance. It’s an absolute pre-requisite.
The barren landscape of trust plays out in several ways beneath the parasol of what has become known as ‘micromanagement’. That is, the close control of the activities of subordinates. It manifests itself in four forms of observation — looking at us directly, looking over our shoulder, looking at everything we create, or looking at us through an application.
Before we summon the spectre of managers past who have subjected us to any one or more of these forms of what we often deem humiliation, it’s worth considering when we’ve been the perpetrator. We’ll have rationalised it, for sure, because when we do stuff there’s always a valid reason. Incompetence, urgency, results, or pressure, perhaps. When others do it there isn’t and they’re just an unmitigated arse. It’s the rule of self. The ownness to which we previously referred. Fessing up at this point is cleansing if not hideously embarrassing. But if you leave this paragraph without an admission, you’re probably not being entirely honest with yourself.
The practice of a manager surveying workers to ensure that set tasks are completed is as old as work itself. Trust wasn’t a management concept in play where livelihoods were at stake daily and margins were fine. In the anonymised corporate world where ownership and labour are separated by ranks and often oceans, it’s easy to forget that if we’re paying someone out of our own pocket to do something, we expect it to be done, and done properly. Assuming, of course, that the complexity of the task, the time allowed, the suitability of the environment, the clarity of the instruction, the materials and resources provided and the supposed competence of the contributor of the service are all deemed appropriate. That’s a lot of dependent factors.
That’s what organisations are supposed to do — ensure that the conditions are met. It takes a lot of people doing a lot of things for that to happen. People do work to make sure other people can do work. If people don’t do the work properly to make sure other people can do the work properly, it all flips belly up.
We might call management by observation ‘panoptic management’ after utilitarian all-rounder Jeremy Bentham’s supposedly humanitarian prison design of the 1780s, the Panopticon. It’s an oft-used metaphor for corporate control. The design comprised a central control tower with cells arrayed around it, allowing a single guard in the tower to see into the cells but the prisoners not to see the guard. In this manner, not knowing whether they were being watched, the prisoners would always behave as though they were under observation. Savage genius, it’s likely to have been acknowledged in some traditional quarters as the optimal workplace design. No-one has been bold enough to openly admit it, naturally.
If not directly surveying those before them, ‘management by wandering about’ (MBWA) provides an opportunity for closeup scrutiny and enquiry. Managers essentially get to spend their time annoying their charges by appearing over their shoulders just as the subject is entering their payment details on a shopping site, all under the auspices of the applied theory of random sampling. Of course, all wandering isn’t the same. It can be anything from skulking (I don’t want you to know) to purposeful stomping (I sure as heck want you to know).
For office workers, the introduction of the Modern Efficiency Desk in 1915, a flat metal creation that gave the hapless worker nowhere to hide behind handy stacks of papers, and the integral storage units of the Wooton, its homely predecessor, assisted the practice. As did the open plan environments typical of the day which began to re-emerge in the 1960s, making visibility all the easier. Such workplace design was sold as an aid to communication and interaction, as leaders become accessible and approachable, without our thinking they might be close enough for us to feel their breath on our neck. Some managers can make such random presence work effectively, offering guidance and mentoring as they go, but it’s likely they would make any environment work.
We may have been forgiven for thinking that the idea of ‘handing our work in’ might have been left at the school gates on our final exit, but the request for output to be submitted in draft, or to be ‘run by’ a manager persists as a monitoring technique, particularly where manager and charge aren’t in the same location. Even when dressed in the finery of awareness, responsibility, quality control or even development. As will be explored below, at times one we’re happy to comply with.
The difficulty in an age where a considerable amount of work takes place through a screen, even in non-office locations, is to establish whether anyone’s actually doing anything useful at all. A determined expression can mask hours of irresponsible yet ultimately satisfying piddling around. Visual supervision became able to identify only whether someone was present. Output could be periodically checked, but that took no account of speed and effectiveness. The higher calibre the operative, the more time became available for amusement. It’s a wonder no-one thought to put the individual in charge at the other end of the workplace so everyone had their back to them, with screens facing.
Born of this managerial frustration, technological applications have been developed to place the eyes on the inside, the tachographs of the digital age. MBWA amid circuits and wires.
This book was written during one of several UK lockdowns as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Trust became a focal point as the first enforced absence from the office with its presence-dependent management structures, leaving many responsible folk feeling helplessly devoid of control. It was a beautiful moment. After some weeks of a distributed-work necessity for many, once deemed unfeasible and undesirable, sceptics of the arrangement quietly began to admit it wasn’t so bad, as a uniquely personal bond with their jogging pants and slippers was formed. All that was missing was that vital management tool of old: visibility.
Ultimately nothing says “I trust you” like a keystroke monitor installed on our laptop. Or screen grabs, or desk chair cushion sensors, or wrist bands. There’s an all-inclusive suite in perdition reserved for the originators of software to track personal performance in this manner, adjacent to that for all those who request them. It’s kit created because it’s possible, not because it’s the right thing to do.
That they’re supposedly consensual masks that such agreement from the observed is often conditional on remaining in the job. That they’re purely for identifying process improvement opportunities ignores the temptation for unscrupulous use. They can pinpoint fault for the precision-targeted application of once-daubed blame. Within the catch-all for the malicious and sinister resuscitation of practices dating back millennia, ‘people analytics’, organisations have been gifted near-perfect Taylorism lurking beneath the mystique of chirpy start-ups with snappy, jovial names. For the proponents, it’s another bug-ridden ventilation shaft to the executive suite. At the expense not just of everyone else, but ultimately themselves too.
The Covid era saw an initial knee-jerk and entirely misplaced celebration of the return of management by output. As in, individually quantified productivity. What became apparent over time, with a little prompting, was that — as we established in Chapter 2 — outside of manufacturing, extraction and logistics, much of what work comprises isn’t output, it’s contribution. The gift economy in full bloom, particularly for many given the need to bridge the isolation from working under house arrest.
In such an environment, the cameras and counters and stokers of the ether in the hands of the people analysers have proven perplexed. Their focus on the algorithmically straightforward realm of quantity means they fail in regard to measuring quality. They also can’t detect whether they’re measuring different people doing the same thing. Just because they’re measuring something doesn’t mean to say it’s useful or meaningful. Measurement is its own mine of joy, as another post describes.
We can’t forget that we’ve been complicit in the methods of physical observation in two respects — to gain credit and avoid blame.
That we supposedly perform better when we know we’re being observed has become known as the ‘Hawthorne effect’ from the 1920s productivity experiments in the USA. Taking this a step further, knowing that we’re being watched has proven to be a path to recognition, favour or promotion if it’s deemed we’re doing something well.
When it works, we make ourselves and our work more visible. It’s the equivalent of scrolling, only played out in slow motion; the dopamine search, the hope of greater rewards to come. So, we encourage observation by placing ourselves in its path and seeking the cues that we’ve been clocked. How reassuring for a manager to find that with every sweeping glance across the workplace that their people are steering themselves into their line of sight with the visual evidence of their presence, commitment and creations. We’ve unknowingly been validating and perpetuating it.
Of course, that all gets rather complicated when it comes to digital surveillance. The game loses its human character, and our ability to optimise the opportunities the system presents diminishes, such that for those who mastered the ancient art, the playing field seems unfairly flat. We just have to bash out those keystrokes or place a large weight on our chair like everyone else.
Our participation is also helpful where we’d rather not be undertaking a task or creating what’s required. It may be unpopular, unpleasant, even incendiary. In which case better we’ve had it reviewed and even edited from above. Sometimes we offer that which we’ve created even when not requested, seeking the inherent protection of the organisational structure. It often goes unsaid, but hierarchy can be useful.
The post-Covid world of office work is now firmly characterised by ‘hybrid’ approaches, with physical presence in the workplace balanced with time spent locally — in another of the organisation’s buildings or a flexible space of some form — or, in all probability, at home. The relative success of the year of remote working has proven that digital tools are adequate for many tasks.
Yet this presents a further visibility challenge associated with ‘mixed mode’ patterns of attendance — a formally dressed version of ‘fear of missing out’ (FoMo), the sense that those present are far more likely to be in leaders’ eyelines and hence thoughts when it comes to involvement, rewards and promotion. This form of proximity bias has yet, at the time of writing, to be proven at scale, but it’s lurking. And we know it’s there. For all non-office workers, nothing in this regard has changed. The reassuring analogue methods are still very much in play.
Of course, wherever we are, work needs to be done and done well. And a contribution needs to be made. So how do we ensure that it happens, that communication is open, two-way and honest, that both managers and their teams are available when they need to be and are trusted to do what they say they will do? There will always be those who commit more and those who commit less. Some who don’t commit at all. How do we fix it for everyone’s benefit?
The organisation is its people. The two aren’t distinct. For an organisation to say it trusts its people makes no logical sense. Even if we surmise that it should read that an organisation’s senior management trust their people, they have to be trusted and trust one another too. And where do we draw the line at “senior?” It’s also the case that trust thrives or dies; it’s not static, frozen interaction. It needs to be nurtured and demonstrated. Our statement therefore becomes:
“We build trust”
In this sense we’re giving trust energy, life. We’re making clear an intent, in striving toward which it becomes dynamic. It’s never finished. If we think it is, we’re finished.
A more mutually supportive future may be secured in three ways.
First, we make trust a condition of belonging.
Not an optional extra available only in deluxe roles, a matter of judgment, personal preference, or any degree of relativity. It’s so often regarded as simply something we should inherently understand, promote and practice. It’s assumed that life has taught us its value and the methods of enhancing it, but through experience and observation of the questionable ways of others it may well have schooled us in the opposite. Even if we still say all the right things at interview.
Trust isn’t up to us, it simply has to be. There can be no reliance on the organisation’s position on trust being painted on the wall, embedded in an intranet site, or hidden in a statement of values that no-one can quite locate or is due for review. It must be made clear at the very outset, at the beginning of the relationship. It can’t be something that has to be earned, because we must work together from the very outset. From there, it can be built.
Second, we dismantle the personal agendas that drive mistrust.
Those same agendas that can prompt the application of blame in their service. We establish collective goal setting and evaluation, we share accountability and the criteria for success, and we make each known to everyone. Where any sense of unfairness is detected, it’s addressed openly and never goes unresolved. It means making tough calls. That’s very often what we’re there for.
In doing so we de-construct the secrecy in all its guises inherent within any organisation. Trust thrives on openness and transparency, even when it’s awkward or difficult. The reverse is therefore true. Walls, doors and locks may be the physical manifestation of a ‘need-to-know’ modus operandi, but the intangible barriers are more menacing. From the manner in which conversations occur, information is distributed and handled, and concerns are raised and addressed. None are left to ferment.
We should remember, too, that when we were all present in the workplace for the majority of the time, we would often see who was talking to who, even if we didn’t hear what was being said. Glass-fronted rooms offered little protection. In a more distributed environment, as will be the case for many, where conversations happen online, we have no idea who’s talking to who. The imperative for transparency has been magnified.
Trust is oxygen, its supply cannot be blocked. Third, therefore, is continual awareness.
What it means, why it’s important, how to deal with situations where it’s broken down, and how to create the path back. That requires sharing positive stories where trust played a vital role. Its absence is called out openly, at the time of it being identified, the reasons established, the return to trust established. All of this within an environment of non-negotiable, complete and assured safety — rational, emotional and physical. For trust and safety are inseparable. We can’t have a viable, functioning workplace without both.
While it’s everyone’s imperative, a beneficial grounding in trust can prepare managers for any challenge, including distributed working and variable workplace attendance. Trust is, after all, location-agnostic. In this way we also dilute and eventually eradicate the perceived need for intrusive approaches and technologies that are diminishing to the observed and monitored.
Naturally, there will be difficult situations to handle, some requiring remedial measures. Yet in such instances, if everyone can say with a clear conscience that it was handled fairly, we’ll be succeeding. Present tense. It’s never over.
As a final thought. With blame, we strive to see it vanish from our lives entirely. We don’t wish to experience it; we don’t wish to witness it. We’re not in pursuit of its opposite, as such — we just don’t want it, as it serves no objectively beneficial purpose.
Yet we crave trust to banish its opposite, mistrust. Ultimately, we can’t obscure the fact that irrespective of what we do or where in the organisation we do it, the feeling of being trusted is exhilarating. Our chest expands and we breathe deeper, our stride lengthens. We’re confident, we’re patient, we listen, we’re aware. It’s an emotional response.
Who wouldn’t want that?
This post is an abridged chapter from my latest book Unf*cking Work, published by Zer0 Books and available from all good booksellers — and most crap ones, too. All reviews, critical or otherwise, massively appreciated.