Lead with Trust or Control…You Decide

Once upon a time there was a restaurant chain with thousands of locations. A handful of those locations were outperforming all the others by nearly 60%. And the senior leaders were stumped.

They began to ask honest questions about their own beliefs, and the practices they used to run the brand. It was real and raw and revealing, reports Inc

The first statement they landed on was, “we claim we are customer centric, but in the end, we are finance centric and don’t trust that if we took the controls off our people, they would do the right thing for our customers and generate the needed financial results for the business”.

Heavy, right? They admitted they don’t fully trust their own people.

The second – and even more poignant – insight was that they were “trying to protect our customers from our people by eliminating all human variability as we don’t trust they would do the right things when they were left on their own.”

Again – no trust in their people. They were able to come clean that they really valued control over trust and would rather hover over everything than create the trust with the broader employee base and have them do what the organization needed.

The dominant practice was to emphasize a certain set of rules to govern behavior. The leaders even reflected on the tremendous emphasis placed on trying to control or steer human thoughts and behaviors.

One of the senior leaders took a stand and made a profound statement that went something like this, “by scripting our employee responsibilities and behaviors, holding them accountable, and rewarding the specific scripted behavior, we can be sure that we create some type of consistency, but at what cost?” He further suggested that that the company was virtually forbidding its people from using their best judgement in serving customers.

He challenged his colleagues that together they needed to better understand what the top performing restaurants were doing to produce results 60% higher.

As the chain began to compare high performing restaurants’ routines and behaviors with those of the average performing ones, they found a few startling things

  1. Control—The average performing restaurants were doing exactly what the senior team asked of them: minimize human variability and maximize control to create conformity, consistency, predictability and scalability. The belief that was driven from the top down can be summed up like this, “we just don’t trust that our people have the judgement, discretion, or discerning ability to make decisions that are best for our business. We will manage the business by creating rules and processes that tell people what to think, and how to behave. Our daily, weekly and monthly dashboard of standards will include the critical control metrics that let us know if people are doing what we are telling them to do.” In situations like this, people feel they have no freedom to actively own the interaction with the customers. They simply follow the rules in the book.
  2. Trust—The high performing restaurants made sure that the basic core processes like food safety and cleanliness were followed, but beside those they went to great lengths to encourage human creativity and variability. They were doing the opposite of controlling. They were inviting people to co-think, versus just telling them what to think. They were allowing them to behave in ways that made most sense to them based on their own thinking. In these locations, human variability and creativity were seen as the key differentiator to high performance. Eliminating variability may work in a process but it doesn’t work with people, because we eliminate what is unique and special about them and what creates exceptional experiences with customers.
  3. Framework and Freedom—As the restaurant chain wrestled with the findings about the difference between average and high performing restaurants, IT acknowledged that controls and compliance were necessary for certain aspects of running the business. However, they came up with a new way to talk about the AND of the business that allowed for both control AND trust. They called this combination a FRAMEWORK AND FREDOOM. This mindset allowed people to have a framework that could be consistent and non-negotiable across the organization, combined with the FREEDOM for people at all levels to bring the best of themselves to the customer experience to make it unique, special, and exceptional.

When all is said and done – and frameworked and freedomed – the biggest lesson this restaurant chain learned (and you can, too) is: you always gain better control through trust. When your people trust you, and you trust them to act like owners and bring their best selves to the customer experience they’re delivering, that’s exactly what will happen… they’ll give their best and the proof will be in the customer pudding.

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