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Experiments with trust

August 7, 2009
Govinda celebrations during the Krishna Janmaa...
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It was a long flight and my co-passenger, noticing some of the stuff I was typing into my laptop, asked me if I was a trainer, and that’s how it started. He engaged me in a discussion about leadership and people challenges and as we spoke, I began to share, and thereby, remember

some of the things I had done in the course of my leadership journey.

His primary challenge was delegation, and we got to discussing the role of trust, in effective delegation.

My primary influence in this area came from Ricardo Semler (Maverick!), I finished the book in almost a single read, remember coming to the end somewhere around 3 am and I was so buzzed, I made a list of things I would do with my team. I used to run a computer training center, those days, with a team of about 35 people.

The first thing I did was I called a meeting with my team, told them about some of the things I had learned and asked them how they felt about trying some of these things. They were in hearty agreement. I tore up the attendance register (yup, we still used those back then!), told them I trusted them to be on time for work and work the required number of days in order to get the job done.

This done, I observed for a few weeks, and I found that no one abused the system! People continued to come to work on time. No one took undue advantage of the system.

Next up, we changed the way we hired new employees. It was decided that the team they would work with, would meet the prospects. If the team approved of someone and I disapproved, we went with the team’s choice. Team had veto powers over my choices. It worked.

When these 2 experiments succeeded, we all had the belief and desire to try more, and try a greater risk. A key team leader, who managed a team of 12 was leaving. Usually, I would have appointed a successor. This time, I threw it to the team. We decided to be democratic. Everyone got to cast a vote for who the next team leader should be, including the current team leader, who was exiting. You could also vote for yourself. We were absolutely amazed to find that the vote was almost unanimously in favour of one individual!

The euphoria we felt, and the reinforcement in trust, was a thrill, and we were all having a ball. Besides these larger ones, there were several smaller experiments with trust going on and they were all working.

Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept

The last one was probably the best and most powerful. It was time for annual increments. I decided to share the financials with every member of the team. And asked each one of them to decide their own increment for the year. With the exception of 1 person, every one of them chose an increment almost exactly in line with what I would have given.

It was also during this period, that we won every award that the company had to give. That we had record levels of performance and customer satisfaction.

Even today, I look back on that period of my life with awe. While it is easy to describe the successes as end-points, there were challenges on that journey that could have led us either way.

My key learnings from those experiments:

1. Trust is always repayed with trust

2. Almost all people are responsible and want to do a good fair job. People are innately good.

3. There is little or no malintent in people

4. If you give people broad guidelines and allow themselves to self-govern, they will do a better job than if you micro-managed them

5. When you trust people and let go, you unleash energy, creativity and employee entrepreneurship

Do you have similar stories? OR A different point of view? Please leave a comment!

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 4:34 am

    Another interesting post – for me experimenting with trust and transparency began during my secondments to Japan as far back as 1989. Some might infer that it was something unique to do with the Japanese context of “face” but it was instead something rather more basic than that – I couldn’t read or write Japanese although I could speak reasonably well. I had no choice other than to trust my Japanese colleagues and in turn invested my time and efforts to make them trust me – once that was done we could do anything together and we collectively used trust as both the fuel and the lubricant for high performance delivery that set new records year after year.

    I took those lessons with me when I moved to the US in 2002, my team was a global one and there were deep divisions in terms of trust and there had been a considerable lack of transparency in the past. Gradually over the course of six months, we opened up the same type of trusting communication, established shared goals, discussed openly bonus targets and the team’s financial targets. The result was a record-setting team who in just over four years repeatedly over-achieved against “impossible” stretch goals and did it ahead of schedule.

    On your 1 to 5, I wholeheartedly agree with them all but would qualify point 3:

    3. There is little or no malintent in people

    Unless trust has broken down and transparency is lost in the fog of mis-communication, at that time I have sadly witnessed malintent breaking out and causing immense problems that required an immediate response and strong principled action.



  2. October 21, 2009 6:34 pm


    Really heartning views from someone who has not only read but also done. Look forward to discussing these sometime with you.


  3. joyandwork permalink
    August 27, 2009 5:28 pm

    Dear Gurprriet,

    Allow me to introduce myself,I am vipul, I work with an agency called Even Flow Events and Entertainment..
    We are Bangalore based event management company.

    Our client Siemens is hosting an offiste for their managers and senior leadership team on 17th September in Bangalore, we were wondering if you available to deliver a keynote address covering the below points :

    Tools and techniques in improving team performances.
    Creating a productive, effective and efficient work environment thus enabling people to be more motivated.

    Kindly share with us your direct number or is there somebody we could speak to? and discuss further details.

    Even Flow Events and Entertainment Pvt Ltd

  4. Yogesh permalink
    August 21, 2009 5:55 pm

    Completely agree!

    It always broke my heart to declare result after Group Discussion during Campus Selection at Engineering colleges.
    One day just decided to be little different – After a GD I wrote down my result and kept it aside – announced that out of
    8 participants 2 have made it and asked them to write the results according to them on chits- 6 out of 8 results matched!
    People are fair – if trusted – even in a competitive environment – still remember the laughter that we had at the end of opening of
    all chits 🙂

  5. K. A. S. Nagpal permalink
    August 17, 2009 6:02 pm

    In my 35 years of running varied small businesses (lost count of how many were wound up) I have yet to come across an employee who cheated me or did not perform to his best. Yes, mistakes were made but never with malintent. Give trust get trust. Give guidlines and a free hand get peak performance. Give happiness get happiness. And several heads are always better than one even if that one belongs to the boss. Great writing, Joy. With your permission, I am sending your post to the MCCI for inclusion in their newsletter knowing it will help many organisations. Cheers.

  6. August 11, 2009 11:32 pm

    Dear Joy

    Now I know why you have the nickname you do!

    Often unfortunately, in our yearning to be business partners, and ‘strategic’ we often forget the “human” in HR… and are seen as manipulative by employees – and are manipulated also by all parties.

  7. Shiv Iyer permalink
    August 11, 2009 2:48 am

    I was one of the team members when Joy (Gurprrietsingh) made those changes in the organization. It really worked wonders and it was amazing to see individuals responding to the situation with a sense of responsibility and maturity.

    I have changed many employers but i consider my tenure during the time with Joy as one of the best in my career. It was a very innovation approach which worked great.

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 11, 2009 2:00 pm

      Hey Shivy! Good to hear from you! Didn’t know you would show up on my blog! And yes, it was a great time we had…what a journey! And it was my privilege to have worked with so many great people!

      • Shiv Iyer permalink
        August 12, 2009 8:23 pm

        Yes i have been following your blog and found it very interesting.

  8. August 10, 2009 11:39 am

    Wow! That was a delight to read! You write very well GS!

    I feel that very few managers & leaders will do what you did.

    Most of them are so insecure that a lot of offices today have turned into quasi-jails, where if you are a minute late or leave a second before time you get marked absent. Such luxuries of trust are vested only in GMs & above, like we people down the line are all sloths given half the chance..

    Do you think that such experiments would work in large organizations as well? I used to work for a very small firm earlier & noticed that such initiatives generally do very well if there are less than 80 employees. But once the number goes up, there is the fear of “How do we control this lot”, then unfortunately you have military & jail tactics that are adopted, with resultant bureaucracy & dis-engagement of employee from the business focus.

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 10, 2009 12:44 pm

      Hey T,

      In my experience it depends largely on the maturity of the organization, organizations that are mature do not practice high levels of command and control. And by mature, I don’t mean age, but emotional maturity and the leadership philosophy underlying most such decision making.

      My experience with Multi National Companies which are very large has been extremely comfortable where there are broad guidelines and high levels of empowerment.

      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment!

      • October 8, 2009 8:35 am

        There is another philosophy that talks about the optimal number of people that an individual can “effectively” communicate/interact with. I came across this concept in the book, ‘The Tipping Point’.
        To cut the long story short, apparently this sort of distributed-leadership style would work best if the organization has up to 150 people. Any more and the organization would be over the “Tipping Point” and this sort of distributed leadership style may not yield the desired results.

        … my 2 bits 🙂

        • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
          October 8, 2009 6:55 pm

          You are right, and yet they manage to do it in Maverick… it is possible to split into units of 100 where these processes can be followed…

          Thanks for taking the time!

  9. August 9, 2009 7:33 pm

    I meant Wally Bock — truly sorry for my typo Wally! Kate

  10. August 9, 2009 7:32 pm

    I echo Wally Block’s sentiments. Wally you handled it the way I so often advise clients — and yet they won’t do it. So kudos to your insight and courage of follow-through. What you faced was a “true resistor” and your actions kept the rest of the team healthy.

    Important to remember that if you do not handle true resistors, their negativity undermines the health of the team — and therefore success of the business goal.
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

  11. August 8, 2009 6:40 pm

    This post underscores a powerful belief of mine, one that’s supported by research and my own experience: most people, most of the time will work to contribute to the group and won’t abuse the system or others. One important word there is “most.”

    There are times when what you describe will get the results you and your team got. But sometimes they won’t. In my early working life I did something very similar to what you did. The results were pretty much the same. Except for one person.

    I needed to chat with her. It did no good. We had a meeting about the situation. Today we might call it an “intervention.” That worked for a while. Then the problem recurred.

    As the boss, my job then was to essentially say, “You have two choices here. You can contribute to the group and act according to our rules and norms. If you do that, you and we will be happy and productive. Or you can do what you’ve been doing. If you do that, you will lose your job here.”

    She reformed for a while. Then slipped back. Eventually, I fired her.

    My point is not that what happened to me will happen. But it can happen. When it does you need to have a way to deal with it.

    In some strong team cultures, you mentioned Semco, consider also Nucor and WL Gore in the US, the group does a lot of the work. But no matter where you are, you also work within a web of laws and regulations.

    You can’t discipline or fire someone without cause. And you have to be able to justify your action in what is often an adversarial environment, sometimes years after the fact. That means you have to document behavior and performance both fairly and comprehensively.

    I don’t want to suggest that bosses shouldn’t try things like what you tried. But I want to make sure that we’re ready if things don’t work out just right. And that we understand that we have great control over the culture of the team, but we operate within an organization with its own culture and rules and within a society that wraps us in laws and norms.

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 10, 2009 10:23 am

      You’re spot on, Wally. Most of the people, most of the time will do the right thing. Even in my experiments, there was one person who thought that having the freedom to choose her own salary increment meant she could double her salary. Luckily, with some counselling, it worked.

      I couldn’t agree more with you, about the firm stance that a leader has to take in such situations. Very often, I find we delay such decisions. They’re not palatable and our own discomfort for such a dialog causes us to postpone such discussions or put the monkey onto someone else’s back.

      And this has an effect on the others, because then they feel cheated.

      Thanks to you and Kate for taking the time to post your thoughts!

  12. August 8, 2009 11:39 am

    What a wonderful story of growth – and the learnings you list at the end very much resonated for me.

    I guess we all can ask ourselves how we see the world and our fellow human beings – as full of problems, or bursting with possibility. For me, the latter approach is the one that produces not only the most successful results in terms of teams and organisations, but also makes for a healthier, more fulfilling experience of this roller coaster we call life. 🙂

    Thank you!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 9, 2009 1:41 pm

      Theory X Theory Y…nurturing versus torturing! :o) That’s the way I see it. I have over time, moved from being Theory X to Y and it has been an interesting journey…it’s still ongoing…and great fun! Thanks for dropping by, Sue!

  13. August 8, 2009 8:56 am

    Absolutely ! I have seen this play over and over, not only with team members and employees, but also extends to contractors, customers and every other sphere that one deals with !

    In my experience, i have found it important to set the ball rolling and stay the course. In letter and spirit ! Especially so, if there was an earlier ‘tradition’ / baggage that was present !

    The power it unleashes on the team members is so very powerful and there is little scope for discord ! And more importantly when personal responsibility is understood and assumed, the collective power it unleashes is awesome.

    And the leader can do many things. As he stands much lighter now !

    Brilliant piece !

  14. August 7, 2009 10:36 pm

    Gurprriet, wonderful post and I agree with your 5 key points. I have personal experience of turning around many project teams from complete chaos to efficient teams; but would like to know what HR folks think of implementing at division level or something similar exists somewhere.

    My learning/thoughts are shared at
    Keep empowering and keep motivating!

  15. August 7, 2009 7:58 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    I applied this relationship of trust with my employees for many years. Unfortunately, I use the past tense because I no longer have employees.

    I would constantly get push back and criticism from my management. It didn’t matter that my team was effective, what mattered to them was that I empowered them too much!

    After going through this with three companies over 10 years, I decided that it wasn’t worth the aggravation for me. So I moved on…

    Now I work as a client satisfaction manager and deal with customer “gifts” (aka complaints) all day. This allows me to build a relationship of trust with our customers and with the employees of other managers.

    But having said that, I think it has more to do with the company’s management culture because I feel that this method would be well accepted where I am now.

    I don’t miss it though, I love dealing with customers and improving the experience that they have with our company. I also get to deal with many more (and diverse) employees than I would if I had my own team.

    Keep it up! And always give the example of trust, the people you work with will always return it to you.


  16. August 7, 2009 6:22 pm

    WOW – what a terrific article. And, credit goes to you for being able to put your ego aside and allow the inherent goodness of those on your team to shine through. Sounds like you are a Level 5 Leader as Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great; maybe not by doing the same things but by doing *your* thing in a magnificent way.

    Bob Burg

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 7, 2009 6:24 pm

      You give me too much credit Bob! But the truth is, it was a team effort. Without them, this wouldn’t have worked. I just read the book, they believed and lived the journey. That’s the way I see it…
      Thanks for taking the time!

  17. August 7, 2009 6:05 pm

    Your summary about your staff and teamwork shows insight and courage. Why not assume the best? You do often get it and it spurs growth and change toward better things. It isn’t naive as so many assume. Quite the opposite — it is the future.

    Years back psychologists coined the phrase Theory X (assume they are lazy) or Theory Y (assume they will do great things). Thanks for sharing your specific experience that once again brings Theory Y back to the forefront!

    The rare times you run into people who do not contribute –you can handle it with ease when so much greatness is going on around you.
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

  18. August 7, 2009 5:53 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve written. I have one experience of being managed/lead by someone who took this appproach and it was a truly transformational experience for everyone in the department. Shame there aren’t more people in business management like this. Things are changing, but there are still a lot who micro-manage using fear, carrots and sticks as their tools. I went self-employed 8 years ago so I could be my own boss and I think she’s pretty good!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      August 7, 2009 6:07 pm

      It was a thrilling ride and has changed me forever, not just did I change at work, but at home as well. While I am far from perfect, I believe I am quite an empowering dad as well.

      The people who worked with me during those days are still in touch and we’re bonded like family. That’s what all those experiments did to us.

      Thanks for leaving a comment, really appreciate you taking the time!

      • Pradyumna permalink
        August 7, 2009 6:36 pm

        Wow! I really enjoyed reading about these experiments. They are truly transformational!
        The learning is something I want to keep with me…
        Thanks for sharing!


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