Low trust organizations are preoccupied with keeping people from doing their worst.  High-trust organizations focus on empowering people to do their best.

The reluctance to trust subordinates with increased authority reflects a natural wariness that has been growing in society in general, as new leaders wonder "What if they abuse the power? What if they don't do the work?" With each new violation of trust, leaders institute new preventative measures and say to themselves -- "not here; not on my watch."

But trusting people with resources and freedom not only allows for professional growth, it unleashes innovation, has the potential to increase trust (with accountability), and enables organizations to learn and grow.

Among the "cousins" to this mindset are:  

  • Room & Board, the furniture retailer, where employees are allowed to devise their own annual reviews. They also plan their corporate events, such as cookouts, parties, and field trips.
  • Netflix and Virgin, where employees can take as much vacation time as they please, as long as they get their job done and business is unaffected.
  • Evernote, where to lessen the impact of workaholics on the company's culture, employees are awarded $1,000 for taking a week off each year.

Of course, trust must be earned. Those trusted naturally gain influence and, with it, power. The paradox is that, with power, people often abuse the trust that brought them power in the first place. (Lord Action once famously observed: "Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")

The trick for the new leader is to imbue with authority those who have demonstrated both competence and character. As they deliver results, they earn increased trust in a virtuous cycle that can power the organization to new heights.

To ensure that everyone has an opportunity to earn trust:

1. Believe in people as your default position.

Assume the best of your direct reports. Give them the opportunity to prove that they can manage additional responsibility. Don't overlook possible new talent. Be thinking of ways to empower those who report to you.

2. Give teammates responsibility.

Empowering subordinates is a gamble. Not empowering them is a bigger one. Done a step at a time, responsibility teaches lessons that will benefit the organization over time. In my experience, the upside of trusting others vastly exceeds its downside -- especially if you've done a good job hiring, giving specific, real-time feedback, and providing progressive authority.

3. Expect a better future.

Because things were done a certain way for years doesn't mean the practice must continue. Indeed, the software/information age is transforming business an industry at a time.  Within this revolution, encourage team members to consider new norms.

4. Accept fumbles.

Learn to distinguish blameworthy conduct from failures borne from creativity, complexity or experimentation.

5. Put paranoia on pause.

Don't fixate on the worst possible outcomes. Minimize suspicion. And don't reward snitches. Replace it with a high-trust culture in which everyone holds each other accountable.

6. Emphasize core values.

When bestowing power it must be to "values-consistent" players. If you empower those who abuse others, hoard information or grab credit, you'll destroy your culture and, with it, the ability to hire and retain the most talented.   

Bottom line: Trusting employees can be risky, but not trusting them guarantees sub-optimal performance. Giving up power is the path to building a powerful organization. And, learning from failures -- processed correctly -- is predicate to growth.