Interview

Empower and Trust People to Do the Right Thing

Employees succeed when empowered to make decisions and where we trust them to do the right thing.

Bill Fox
Mar 24, 2021
8 min read

Alan Zucker: Founder, Project Management Essentials.

At Forward Thinking Workplaces, we are discovering the people, insights, and strategies that lead to Forward Thinking minds, leaders, and workplaces of the future — today!


How can we create a workplace where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Alan: Over the last 100 years, we have seen a major change in leadership and management patterns. We have moved from industrialization, and its constrained view of labor and management, to the information age. In the information age, we recognize that we have highly educated employees who will succeed when empowered to make decisions.

Create an environment with real empowerment where we trust people to do the right thing is key.

You can see the difference. In these environments, people are invested in the company and take pride in their work. For a lot of managers, creating this environment is still very difficult. We have been talking about empowerment for years, but it is still threatening to many people.

Last year, I visited Spotify in New York. It was a cool and hip office space in Lower Manhattan. The company had so completely embraced self-management that people were not assigned to projects. Rather, they were given the power to decide what project they wanted to work on. Product owners had to develop a vision that was inspiring enough that people volunteered for the project. I thought that was radical. But that ultimate empowerment also created a powerful marketplace of ideas. If you could not convince your colleagues that this was not valuable, how many customers would really want it?

Most companies, particularly in technology, will have to change the way they manage their teams. Either that or they won’t succeed. Agile, DevOps, and the new ways of working are based on empowerment. This does not mean that management disappears, but knowledge workers don’t need to be micromanaged.

For many managers, letting go is difficult. I wrote a blog called “If Agile Is So Much Better, Why Is Adoption So Low?” Agile adoption is hard because traditional managers think their job is telling people what to do. If they are not actively directing the work, then what is their role? We need to rethink how we coach managers so they’re more comfortable in those kinds of environments. Helping managers transform how they think and behave requires training and leadership. We are asking them to unlearn old habits.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Alan: TRUST. To get someone’s best performance, we need to trust them. And show that trust every day.

Trusting managers recognize that people come to work with the best intention.

Nobody comes to work wanting to screw up. Mistakes happen. We have all made bad decisions. We expected events to go one way, and they went the other, or we didn’t have all the information to make the “right” decision. As a manager, creating an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes⏤as long as we learn from them⏤is important. If we create an environment where there’s no fear, people will give you their best performance.

As a manager, it’s important to create real and trusting relationships with your people. Really get to know your people. What is their spouse’s name? Do they have dogs or cats? What do they like to do on the weekends?

When you look at the modes of power, relationship power is the highest form. People will do incredible things if they trust you, believe in you, and know you have their best interests in mind. If managers fall back on their positional power and their ability to punish and use rewards, they don’t get the best from their people. Building relationships, creating trust, and building an environment where we expect people to do their best, is the way to create a high-performing team.

When I work with my teams, I’m often the first one to have an idea. But I will always say, “I know this is my idea, but I’m looking for you to tell me if it makes sense.” Half the time, I’m right, and half the time, I’m wrong. People understand that I’m open to and encourage different points of view. Often, I’m amazed by the ideas that come back. People have brilliant ideas I would never have considered. Creating an open environment benefits the organization and gives people a true sense we value their thoughts.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Alan: I think we all want to have meaning in what we’re doing. We want to believe we’re working on something that’s creating a greater good. We want to take pride in what we’re doing.

When I was in high school, I worked in a restaurant as a dishwasher. It was a hard job. It was dirty, smelly, and hot, but I took pride in what I was doing because I had a stack of clean dishes at the end of the night. When I got into management, I took pride in two things: the applications we developed, and more importantly, the teams I built. I have fond memories of many of the people I have worked with. I have many lifelong friendships with people that worked for and with me years ago.

People want to feel a connection. They want to feel connected to the company they’re working for, the customers they’re supporting, and the business itself. A critical role of management is creating the connection that tethers the employee to the company. If the tether is strong, people will be motivated to work and give it their best every day. If you create that connection and build a trusting environment as a manager, you will be amazed at what people will do and how they will repay you both in terms of loyalty, commitment, and brilliant ideas.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Alan: I always say to my teams I might be as smart as anyone here, but I’m not smarter than the team’s collective wisdom. I think asking what we can be doing better as an organization to make what we’re doing more productive, more creative, and more valuable is the most important question. Our employees know a lot more than we do. They’re in touch with the details. They’re in touch with our customers. They know what’s going on. If we listen to them, they will tell us how to manage our operations better and create better products.

I’m putting together a training session for one of my clients, and I will use the NASA Survival Kit game. In the game, people are given a list of twenty items, and they have to prioritize them in order as to what they would bring if they were an astronaut stranded on the moon. First, you have them prioritize it by themselves and then as a team. Invariably, the team score is much higher than the individual scores.

I think those kinds of lessons are important for us to remember as managers. We are not brilliant. We do not have a monopoly on good ideas. Reaching out to people to get their ideas and input and then implementing it is one of the best things. Show people, you’re really listening by implementing their ideas.

I’m a huge fan of using the Crawford Slip Method (CSM) of brainstorming because it eliminates groupthink and bias. People brainstorm ideas on a post-it note then place them on a wall. Next, they categorize and prioritize the list. I’ve used the Crawford Slip to solicit opinions and get feedback in a non-threatening environment.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Alan: I think employees should ask where are we going? What’s our direction? What’s our strategy? What do you want from us? What’s the definition of done? Because I think when employees have that information, they know the direction, the strategy, and the expected outcomes.  When employees know the “what” and “why,” they can figure out the “how.” Sometimes the manager needs to be there to facilitate the conversation or be a sounding board.  But that is part of their role in the new management environment.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

Alan: I think there are a couple of questions we should ask ourselves. One, where am I taking my company? What’s my strategy? What are my big goals? These are the big aspirational things.

The second question is, how am I going to get there? Who are the people who will help me achieve those goals?

Finally, and most importantly, am I getting there in a way that I’m comfortable with in terms of my integrity, my morality, and my ethics?

For good or for bad, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work in interesting times. My first big job was working for the U.S. Treasury Department. I managed the Treasury bill, note, and bond auctions when Solomon Brothers cheated in the auctions. I saw firsthand the implications of that scandal. Solomon Brothers ended up going bankrupt. It was all about hubris.

Then I went to work for MCI. I was there during the good years and also the WorldCom bankruptcy. The CFO asked managers I knew in the accounting group to cook the books—move expenses to capital. They were the first people to go to jail. They didn’t make millions.  It ruined their lives.

These experiences showed me the importance of having your own ethics and moral compass. Being careful about saying no. That’s not the right thing. In business, we’re tempted in many small ways. Whether it’s dealing with vendors and making sure we follow the guidelines and ethics of vendor relations.

I often see people making small decisions that put them on that slippery slope. Like when one project is running over-budget, but another is under, charging time to the under-budget project. I think it’s important to regularly think about what we are doing and making sure it is ethical?

Then there’s the question of are we treating our people fairly? Are we treating our customers and our stakeholders and employees with respect? Are we honest with them? Are we treating them the way we would want them to treat us? Are we creating the right relationships? I think those are the things I thought about a lot as a leader. Am I doing the right thing for my company, for my company, and myself? Am I happy with myself when I wake up every morning?

Are we asking the right questions in this forum? should we be asking these questions in the workplace?

Alan: I think these are tough questions. Asking managers and leaders what questions they should ask themselves at a deeper level and asking what you should be asking your employees. These are all important questions. I don’t think they get enough air time.

I also think most that are managers or leaders don’t get adequate training in how to manage. I think organizations should spend more effort developing management and leadership skills. I think we need to be focusing more on teaching people how to lead, how to manage, and how to ask the right questions. In today’s environment, management and leadership is not just the province of people that have a manager, director, or vice president in their title. Almost everybody should ask themselves those types of questions.

These are important questions. Creating safe environments in our organizations is also important. We didn’t talk about it, but many organizations do not have healthy cultures or environments. We see organizations where there’s fear. Or you where there’s dysfunction or disrespect.

When I’m doing training and working with my clients, one of my big mantras is I talk about electronic distractions and turning cell phones off. If you’re looking at your phone and reading your messages, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in the meeting. The pervasive use of cell phones and other electronic distractions is also reducing our cognitive capabilities. Several studies discuss the impact of cell phone distractions on focus and attention.

We need to be talking about not multi-tasking. People don’t multi-task. We task switch. And when we jump from one task to the next and then back, there is a cost. Pretty quickly, the cost of task switching overwhelms the effort dedicated to the task itself.


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