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High-Trust Vs. High-Monitoring Workplaces

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

I once worked as a counselor in an alternative school for delinquent and troubled teens. The building was full of young people who were on probation, expelled from their home school districts or facing other serious disruptions at home.

This program was (and still is) universally known as one of the most effective in the region for producing remarkable behavior and life-changes in the youth we served. The day-to-day environment was also remarkably different than nearly every other similar program at the time.

For instance, we were a “hands-off” program. We didn’t restrain or otherwise manhandle our students. We didn’t manage behavior through onsite medicating. There was no graffiti on our walls. You were unlikely to hear profanity. Fights and violence were extremely rare. There were no metal detectors or video cameras. We had no guards and the doors were unlocked.

Here’s the kicker… We had no code of student conduct. Instead, we had five simple prohibitory rules that everyone was asked to memorize and follow.

They were:

  • No violence or threats of violence to people or property

  • No leaving school property without permission

  • No sexual activity

  • No drug use or suspicion of use

  • No stealing

That’s it. Mind you, we were also tough. If you couldn’t abide by any of those clear rules you couldn’t stay. We gave students opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, but you couldn’t actively violate those rules and keep showing up.

We made it clear that when you walked through the door, you were personally making the decision to follow those expectations and hold your friends and classmates accountable to them as well. There was no middle ground.

Everything else regarding behavior we turned into a community conversation that we helped the students negotiate and discuss with one another on a regular basis. This school culture wasn’t something we did to you. Instead, this community was something in which you had to be ready to personally invest as a student.

Other than the five non-negotiable things we asked people not to do, we focused all of our energy on what everyone should do.

We spent a significant amount of time talking about “norms” for behavior and expectations for everyday responsibilities such as classroom activities and cleaning up after lunch. On the staff side of the culture, we created a set of affirmative commitments we called “basic concepts”. Then, we behaved as if we expected everyone to do the right thing (even when skeptical) and expressed surprise (even when not surprised) when they didn’t. We used instances of bad behavior as an opportunity to reinforce our highest aspirations of one another, rather than a rationale to expect less from those around us in the future.

Misbehavior was not cast as a violation of policy. Instead, it was harm done to your relationships, classmates and community that you now had a responsibility to repair. In a culture like this, impersonal detentions and such serve no useful purpose. You had to face the real people you hurt, take responsibility for what you did, and find a way to rebuild trust. When done right, this is far “tougher” than simply being punished by authority figures.

Staff set strong boundaries and had a say too, but this was ultimately the students’ community. As we told them many times, they had the power to make that community whatever they wanted it to be. Each day these young people had to decide just how serious they were about making a change in their lives. If you weren’t serious, this wasn’t the place for you. We’d even help you find another place to be.

This way of doing things is not easy. It requires intensive daily effort from everyone in a community. However, this active co-creation of a real community is what unlocked the hidden potential of our students – as leaders and as human beings.

Sure, we could have forced them into compliance with our expectations by monitoring their every move and applying sanctions when we discovered violations. That’s what most programs for troubled youth did and still do.

Instead, we did the painstaking work of helping them form a community that they actually valued and that made them want to do the right thing in the first place, whether adults were watching or not.

Workplaces have to make a similar decision about their internal cultures. You can either have a high-trust culture or a high-monitoring culture. You can’t have both.

Each way is a lot of work. There’s no free lunch. However, each approach is based on fundamentally different and opposed assumptions about the nature of work, people and their potential. Here’s a few contrasts:

In high-monitoring workplaces:

  • Poor performance and bad behavior get most of the attention, and thus, influence over the culture

  • Encourage mass compliance

  • Value obedience

  • Procedures and rules proliferate

  • Create vicious cycles of monitoring, sanctions and regulation

In high-trust workplaces:

  • Exemplary performance and good behavior get most of the attention, and thus, influence over the culture

  • Encourage individual responsibility-taking

  • Value initiative

  • Procedures and rules are minimized

  • Create virtuous cycles of trust, responsibility-taking and freedom

I have a friend who is a brilliant guy. He attended excellent schools and has off-the-charts aptitudes that in the field of IT. He’s conscientious, creative and trustworthy. Yet, his entire job description is this: all-day/every-day he monitors the online behavior and time-on-task of his colleagues within a large corporation.

All of this is done from a keyboard using advanced software and performance metrics. The data he gathers is congealed into digestible reports and sent to other managers, who then punish or reward their staff accordingly.

In any culture, behavior will tend to congregate around the standards and benchmarks that are discussed the most. High-monitoring cultures focus on minimally acceptable standards. Accordingly, they promote mediocre and minimally acceptable performance.

This behavior management strategy is fundamentally the same as most programs for troubled youth. Because a few people can’t be trusted, they treat everyone in the culture as unworthy of trust. Everyone then adjusts to those expectations.

Conversely, building a high-trust workplace culture demands that we treat others as trustworthy. Only then are most people likely to rise to meet that expectation.

Sure, some won’t rise to the occasion. But most of those people are likely to behave that way no matter where they are. Don’t build a workplace culture around loosely committed and low-performing outliers.

By all accounts, my friend’s company is financially successful. However, what is it like to work in a place like that? What type of people and leaders does it develop? How much potential creativity and innovation are lost by focusing brilliant professionals like my friend on the task of catching a small minority of his colleagues doing things wrong? Even more importantly…

How much more success, both human and financial, would this company realize if they focused on helping the vast majority of their staff to maximize what they can do right? With a high-monitoring culture, they will never know.

Much rests on which path an organization chooses. The decision will determine who and how they hire. It will determine whether internal resources are invested in preventing loss or encouraging gain. Most of all, this decision will communicate whether you are only offering people a life-deadening job or a potentially life-changing community.

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