Every week, I talk with executive teams about internal debates about issues like flexibility, remote work and productivity. Inevitably, as we get around to the root of their challenges somewhere in the back half of the session, someone finally says it: “Our real problem is that we don’t trust each other.”

The biggest driver of productivity at work today isn’t about the remote-versus-office tug-of-war, or generative AI. It’s trust.

More specifically: The way too many organizations measure productivity today isn’t just inaccurate. It also actively reduces trust, which in turn decreases people’s willingness to go the extra mile for their employers and their customers—which, in a viciously ironic turn, reduces productivity.

Microsoft research shows 87% of employees say they’re productive, while only 12% of leaders are confident saying the same of their teams. It’s no wonder—the world has changed around everyone, executives as well as employees. But attempts to make sense of this new world over the past few years have done both parties a disservice by casting everything as an “us versus them” battle.

And since “productivity” in knowledge work is notoriously hard to define, the majority of leaders are defaulting to visible signals of inputs, not outcomes. Recent Slack research shows while productivity is the number-one concern for executives, 60% of their productivity metrics are activity-based: emails sent, hours worked. Productivity concerns are also a driving force behind the “return to office” movement: The Institute for Corporate Productivity (ic4p), a human-capital research organization, reports that 64% of respondents’ employers have policies about how many days someone needs to be in the office—essentially signaling a lack of trust.

While a lack of trust isn’t exactly surprising, it is holding all of us back—people and organizations alike.

The real recipe for productivity

Too many leaders are struggling, stuck in a world that trained them to “manage by walking around.” When I talk about trust with executives, what I hear regularly is, “How do I trust my teams to go off and not get surprised at the end of the quarter?” or “How do we hold people accountable for performance?”

While those same questions could have been asked pre-pandemic, they weren’t as common because we had physical signs of activity: crowded elevators, impossible-to-book meeting rooms, the buzz in open offices. But as one Wall Street CHRO said to me, “It’s not like we really knew if they were working or not.”

There is a formula for creating highly productive organizations, and it leads to a better world of work for people and organizations. Two big elements of that formula are: 1) building trust, and 2) a relentless focus on outcomes. Here’s what recent research shows us about the link between the two:

  • Top-performing organizations are built on trust. In a 2023 study, ic4p found that two-way trust in an organization was the biggest differentiator between high-performing organizations—those that were growing faster, more profitable, and had higher customer satisfaction than their peers—and low-performing ones. The differences were stark: At high-performing organizations, employees were over 10 times more likely to say they trust their senior leadership, and senior leaders were 11 times more likely to say they trust their employees.
  • Trust drives employee engagement and productivity. In Slack’s August 2023 survey of over 10,000 global office workers, trust was the top determinant of employees’ productivity scores, overtaking flexibility. Employees who felt trusted were twice as productive as those who didn’t. They were 30% more likely to put in extra effort at their jobs. Those that don’t feel trusted were more than twice as likely to say they were looking for a new job.

Want to create a “quiet quitting” problem? Just signal to employees that you don’t trust them. In 2023, a lot of organizations have done exactly that. Trust gets built slowly over time through transparency, shared success, and building more inclusive environments. It gets lost quickly through poorly-handled layoffs and top-down mandates on return-to-office, presented without evidence of cause and with indifference to what was communicated before.

Building trust

The starting point to building trust (or rebuilding it) is transparency. Two-way communication and engagement between executives and employees is challenging, but it is the future of how we work—workforce conversations are happening in digital hallways, whether executives are aware and present or not. Here are three big levers:

  • Having two-way conversations. Leaders need to explain the rationale behind the decisions they make. Not everyone gets to vote, but voices need representation, and decisions need both clarity and logic that is rooted in the businesses’ goals and performance.
  • Transparent sharing of knowledge. Too many organizations and leaders have cultures that are rooted in “need to know.” That makes sense if you’re working on the latest secret project at Apple, but in too many organizations, it’s an excuse to use knowledge as power—which not only burns trust, it also slows things down. For example, internally sharing status updates on major initiatives helps teams rally around challenges in bringing them to life, while leaving people in the dark invites uncertainty and anxiety.
  • Asking for help. Worried that people aren’t worried enough about the businesses’ performance? Share with them what’s not working, as well as what is. Be vulnerable that you don’t have all the answers, but you want their input in solving these issues. Leaders should be setting stretch goals for teams, but inviting them to craft the path to achieve them gives people the autonomy they value—and allows them to apply creative solutions a leader might have never considered on their own.

None of those elements can be built overnight. In many organizations and for many leaders, they require substantial cultural changes. But the pace of change in the world of work is too high to go back to believing that a command-and-control environment reliant on monitoring will drive the speed, agility, and relentless focus on customer satisfaction that organizations need to succeed.

Focusing on outcomes

If the worst way to measure the impact of a person or team is through keystroke monitoring or office attendance, the best is by understanding if they’re generating the outcomes the business needs. Just as importantly, focusing on outcomes signals to employees that leaders trust them to get their work done well, but in a way that works for them.

The starting point sounds easy, but requires consistent effort, communication, and perhaps most importantly clear decision-making, for any organization of any size. Here are some tactics that help:

  • Clear goals and priorities. Processes like Objectives and Key Results, made most famous by Google, are one version of this: clear longer-term objectives and ways of measuring progress against them. Getting to this level of clarity requires making challenging decisions about priorities (What’s most important? What doesn’t get funded? What do we do when we’re not on track?) and communicating to teams the rationale behind that decision-making,
  • Continual measurement and communication. Transparency is key to building trust up and down the ladder here too – focusing on whether a team, business or organization is meeting its most important goals creates common cause – and a level playing field. If it’s not honestly assessed and publicly shared internally, trust is lost – as are opportunities to address business issues.

The issues of trust, transparency, and outcomes all move in tandem. You can’t do them in isolation. None of them are easy to build, and none of them may feel as urgent as “What are we doing about generative AI?” or “We’re worried about next quarter,” but they are the foundation of building organizational performance.

To put it another way, what sounds better: sweating the next battle over return-to-office policies, worrying about how to police workers’ use of ChatGPT, or building an environment where those issues aren’t even on the leadership team’s worry list?

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