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The Power, Problems & Possibilities Inside of a Secret

How to Strengthen Employer—Employee Trust

I’ll never forget the time a regular routine became a bold breakthrough.

One calendar click connected me with my boss for our weekly one-on-one conversation. His predictable plaid button-up mirrored our predictable pattern. Chit chat. Check in. Check off the agenda.

Until a single sentence stopped me mid-thought.

“I need you to present at a meeting on my behalf,” he opened, gently leaning back into his ergonomic swivel chair. “The senior leader leadership team meeting.”

His offer of an all-access backstage pass hung in the air like a dense fog on a dewy morning. And I was searching for clarity.

“I’ve got another meeting at the same time,” he paused. “And you’re the expert on this topic anyway. I trust you own this on my behalf and to represent the team well. I’ll help you prepare.”

How do you feel when you’re trusted with greater ownership?

When my boss granted me a seat at a senior table, I felt like I was invited behind a red velvet curtain. Let in on the secrets and strategies of a select successful few. His trust deepened my commitment to contribute at a higher and better level. And that got me thinking…

How could ownership help solve the trust gap between employers and employees right now?

Hybrid, distributed and flexible work arrangements leave most organizations struggling to close a trust gap between:

  • How do I know my employees are working?

  • How does my manager know how hard I’m working?

Organizations need to know their employees’ output. That’s not going to change. But how you empower that output is key your entire organization’s success. The secret to improved employee engagement and high-performance teams is a one-word strategy every leader must revisit now.


Distributed teams require distributed ownership.

Distributed ownership is not a tool to get out of work or making difficult decisions. Distributed ownership is a tool to accomplish more together. A decentralized workforce needs decentralized decision making, accountability and ownership.

Before you click to buy employee spyware, turn a curious eye to what’s happening with middle managers. Tuning in to middle management is vital for senior leaders who are in the position of setting strategy, allocating funding, and alleviating challenges. Want more from your individual contributors? Empower your mid-level managers. The ripple effect will translate, helping everyone to perform at their best and deliver the results the business needs.

What Middle Managers Value Most

Empowering middle managers begins with understanding what they most want senior leaders to know and may feel hesitant to say. Seth Mattison is a specialist in workplace behavior—specifically the kind of behavior that helps organizations to thrive.

He commissioned a survey called “Leading the Leaders—Leading From Home.” With 1,850 respondents, all managers and directors working remotely, the survey explores what the mid-level managers care about most of all. The survey measured 436 metrics on values, wants, needs and expectations.

“We wanted to know what employees value most from the leaders and companies they work for. Relationships—a sense of belonging—came in at the very top,” Seth explains.

The second value that Seth discovered was the idea of ownership. Personal responsibility is surging in the work-from-home world, as managers understand that empowering greater ownership is the key to distributed impact.

Ownership—knowing what needs to be done and then being responsible for making it happen—is tied directly to security. Security was another value that emerged as a subset—and why wouldn’t it? The pandemic has created more uncertainty and insecurity than we’ve seen since World War II, maybe even more in some sectors. And security links to the third key value: acknowledgement and visibility.

“Managers have to show up with clear communication around expectations. Crystal -clear outcomes and accountability, these things are more important than ever,” Seth summarizes.

Indeed, if you want greater ownership, and employees seek security and belonging, tell them exactly what you want them to own and link it to what they value.

“That ‘knowingness’ helps reduce a team member’s anxiety. It helps folks to know where they stand. Where they’re going. What you need. As a leader, wholehearted communication is where it all begins,” according to Seth.

The Ticket to Granting a Backstage Pass: Change the Conversation

How do you learn to measure, and trust, in a work-from-anywhere world? Consider conversations using these questions to create choices that result in alignment, accountability and autonomy in a way that works for employers and employees.

Getting Started:

  • Are your employees and managers encouraged to work autonomously?

  • Does your organization have reporting processes and tools in place to monitor (but not necessarily spy on) your workers?

  • What’s your cultural context for listening and engaging teams in a distributed environment?

For Executive Leaders:

  • What new training programs can you launch to help middle managers with communications, change management, listening and handling conflict?

  • Revisit expected outcomes. Are you using yesterday’s tools to measure the future of work? Adjust based on what matters most now.

  • What channels have you put in place for listening?

For Middle Managers:

  • What’s the biggest challenge you’re trying to solve right now? Ask for what you need and say why you need it.

  • How can you engage your employees in solving the challenges the team faces?

  • What are you ready to own? How would greater ownership accelerate momentum and results? Build your business case.

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