Trust Them!

In the book ‘No Rules Rules’, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explains how Netflix leaders trust their staff and demonstrate that trust in practice.

For example, they post high-level strategy documents – with confidential information they wouldn’t want to leak to competitors – on a public bulletin board and trust staff to respect its confidentiality.

Most organisations don’t dare to be as trusting – and many are the exact opposite. But Hastings says:

‘I don’t want my employees to feel like they’re working for Netflix; I want them to feel like they are part of Netflix.’

This radical transparency is not unique to Netflix, but it’s rare. It only occurs when you build a high level of trust with your team members. You start by trusting them to do their job, help them build their judgement to make good decisions, and eventually reach a point when you could trust them with the keys to the kingdom.

What would YOU do?

In the book, co-author Erin Meyer poses a series of challenging leadership scenarios to Hastings, including these:

  1. Your start-up company is going public next week. You have always shared the quarterly numbers with your team, but if you do it now and there’s a leak before you announce them to Wall Street, your stock could crash and the leaker could go to prison. What will you do?
  2. An organisational restructure could mean several people on your team losing their jobs. But there is only a 50% chance it will happen. Will you tell your team now or wait until you’re certain?
  3. You have hired and fired five sales directors in the last five years. After careful reflection, you realise all these mis-hirings are entirely due to your own poor judgment. Do you admit this to the rest of your team?
  4. You need to fire a team member who is hardworking and generally effective, but is sometimes verbally clumsy and gets the company into trouble. He pleads with you to tell the team he’s leaving of his own accord rather than being fired. How will you announce this to your staff?

In each case, Reed Hastings replies by saying (in essence) “Trust them!”:

  1. Trust them! Share the results as usual and warn them of the consequences of leaking them.
  2. Trust them! Tell them now so they can make plans for the future.
  3. Trust them! Admit your mistakes and they will trust you more.
  4. Trust them! Tell people the whole truth and trust them to treat it with respect.

What WILL you do?

It’s easy to find excuses for not doing this: You don’t have the authority, you don’t want to burden them with too much information, not every team member deserves this level of trust, you have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, you risk losing your job (or worse), and so on.

You can always find legitimate reasons to draw a line in the sand and play it safe. But at least consider how you could cross that line. If it makes you feel more comfortable, start small – perhaps with one or two key people, and in non-critical situations.

In 2020, The Workforce Institute at Kronos asked leaders and their teams about trust. Most employees say trust has a major impact on their work, including their mental health (55%), career choices (58%), and sense of belonging (64%). But almost two-thirds of the respondents (both leaders and their team members) said trust needs to be earned, not presumed. This is disappointing but not surprising. Most leaders just don’t know how to build trust systematically.

Building trust takes time, but it’s the best way to build a flexible, agile, and future-ready team in this fast-changing world.


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