Updated: Apr 24, 2020
“Netflix added almost 60m new subscribers in the first quarter,” an acquaintance announced to me the other day. “No prizes for guessing what my team have been busy with during the lockdown”, he added. I kept to myself the news of 22m Disney+ subscribers since the UK went into coronavirus lockdown. He was already convinced that ‘working from home’ was a euphemism for underlings’ binge-streaming.
As he spoke, I was reminded of a talk given last year by the psychologist, Adam Grant. He asked audience members for a show of hands if they thought the proportion of employees who would steal $50’s worth of goods from their employers to be less than 10%. Then he asked for a show of hands if we thought the proportion would be between 10% and 20%. 20% to 30%? Finally, hands up all those who thought the percentage would be above 30%. Adam then confessed to not knowing the answer. But he was convinced that whatever proportion we estimated was not the likelihood that it would happen, but the likelihood that WE would do it. Basically, we attribute our own behaviours to others in order to rationalise them.
There are, indeed, studies that reveal that sportspeople who call out others for doping are more likely to be taking performing-enhancing drugs themselves. Students who believe others cheat in exams are more likely to be cheaters themselves. People who expect others to accept bribes are more likely to take them. So, might this supervisor’s perception of his team members endlessly streaming movies and TV series while working from home be little more than a reflection of what he himself was prone to do?
I once again kept my thoughts to myself. However, when he started talking about his plans to increase online surveillance in order to better monitor the activities of his team, I could be silent no longer. Tightening surveillance would send a patently clear signal to those team members: I do not trust you. They might then reciprocate his gesture of mistrust. They might use technology, or some other ruse, to undo his surveillance initiative. They might also dedicate a considerable amount of their energy to this end, energy they could otherwise dedicate to their work. This response might result in a further tightening of surveillance, more mistrust, and more countermeasures to undermine the monitoring. Such a downward spiral might continue until the relationship becomes untenable.
A better alternative would be to work to improve the trust relationship between himself and the team members. This trust relationship includes both the relationship between the organisation and all employees, and his interpersonal relationship with each individual member of the team.
Does the organisation subscribe to norms and processes that employees perceive as fair and just? For example, is the allocation of resources, and the distribution of rewards from their collective effort, equitable? Are the processes that lead to these distribution decisions consistent, unbiased, and based on accurate information? Are people treated politely and sincerely? Is information shared honestly, thoroughly, and in a timely fashion? When these features are in place, collaborators will trust the organisation and the roles of everyone within it.
On an interpersonal level, trust is a combination of two judgements we make about others: the first, and most important, is about their benevolence; the second is about their competence. Benevolence describes their willingness to make good things happen for us; competence describes their ability to do so.
Can he, as a team leader, demonstrate that he has the qualifications, skills, and experience to justify that role, i.e., did he arrive at that position through the fair and just organisational processes described above? Is he careful and considerate of his team members? Is he willing to be vulnerable, for example, by enabling their autonomy, or simply by being willing to share his faults, fears, and failures? Does he put their interests ahead of his own? Does he have integrity – saying honestly what he will do, and doing diligently what he has said? When employees trust their leaders, they have no need to divert energy toward ‘covering their backs,’ and can focus fully on their work performance.
So rather than dedicating energy and resources to tightening surveillance, a better option would be to have an honest discussion with the team about the goals, the challenges and the rewards that await them. Talk about the resources and support that will enable each one to go above and beyond the job role. Confess when we screw up and discuss what we can all learn from it. And, when we are done, why not talk about the latest show we sneaked a glimpse of on Netflix?
 My recollection of the numbers and percentages might not be 100%. It was almost a year ago.