Presumed Guilty: Do You Manage By Fear?

What if instead of standing over employees and anticipating their every mistake, you assumed success and solicited feedback on accomplishments? This “trust-and-track” method lowers turnover, increases employee satisfaction–and even improves profits.

Presumed Guilty: Do You Manage By Fear?

You see it all the time at small businesses: managers who assume that the vast majority of employees will screw up, steal, or purposely scuttle the company’s objectives.


Just look at the surveillance cameras proliferating in workplaces. Some companies are now requiring that job applicants hand over their Facebook passwords. And these are just the most obvious examples.

Many managers employ a command-and-control approach, standing over employees, screaming when they make mistakes, precisely because they don’t trust them. Such managers also promulgate detailed policies that allow little room for employees to figure things out independently. And when it comes to certain groups of employees, such as teenagers, managers make quick negative judgments based on their clothing or grooming choices.

You might interpret a “presumed guilty” mentality as healthy vigilance on the part of managers. In fact, it makes for a degraded workplace experience seething with suspicion, doubt, conflict, and negativity. Companies wind up with unengaged employees who perform poorly and leave at a frightful pace. As a result, these organizations become less resilient; when things go wrong, they go wrong in a much bigger way.

My small business, a chain of two local pizza restaurants in suburban Chicago, is among the top 10 busiest independent pizza chains in the United States as measured in per-unit sales. Our margins are often twice those of the average pizza joint, while employee turnover is less than 20 percent per year in an industry that averages 150 percent. Employee theft is rare, and engagement is high–and that’s with a workforce composed primarily of teenagers. The reason for our success: we don’t presume team members guilty. And we don’t manage by fear and command-and-control.

Fighting the urge to lock employees down and control their every move, we put systems and processes in place that allow employees to behave independently, prove themselves, and make important learning mistakes. But we don’t just leave employees to themselves. We also track their performance, providing data-based feedback with an eye toward helping them grow and serve our purpose better. Ultimately, we teach employees to monitor their own performance and that of the business, and to come up with ideas for improvement. We call the comprehensive approach “trust-and-track.”

Over the past 17 years, we’ve re-tooled our entire company to remove elements of command-and-control and incorporate trust-and-track. Do we really need all those policy and procedure manuals for every job? In our training for each position, we start with the desired work product in mind, working backwards to define a few specific expectations for each step. But we also define a number of areas where employees can craft their own solutions or methods to get the job done.


What about all those managers standing over employees? What we do instead is incorporate extensive, in-the-moment feedback and coaching that emphasizes affirming people when they do something right (rather than yelling at them when they get it wrong). Starting on day one, our trainer will ask a new team member to fill in a certification sheet that asks in the first box, “what is one thing you did well today?” and the second box, “if you could do this shift over, what is one thing you would do to enhance your performance?” Our trainer fills in answers in the empty box next to the trainee’s, and a discussion ensues that promotes real learning, personal growth, and higher performance.

When we start believing in employees and all they can accomplish and add to an enterprise, we orient ourselves toward providing all the support possible to help them develop and grow, feeling certain that the business itself will benefit in turn (as it invariably does). That means not merely teaching specific job skills, but also communication skills. And it means providing opportunities for employees to learn while doing.

Here’s some advice for businesses that want to try out trust-and-track:

  • Encourage individuality in the workplace. Give your employees sufficient space to perform their jobs in their own unique ways, provided their behavior does not detract from the company’s purpose. Doing so will allow them to apply their own intrinsic talents, allowing for breakthrough performance beyond what managers may have envisioned. Because their unique personalities shine, our servers build unusually strong relationships with customers–one reason several have received $500 and $1,000 tips.
  • Open books policy. Make as much of the company’s financial and HR information available as possible to your employees. This not only encourages an environment of trust but allows your employees to understand how the company is doing and what actions they can take to improve financial performance. In 2006, when our sales were strong and the team knew we were getting close to our goal for the year, team members realized that hitting that goal early would produce an extra bump in the profit sharing program. They rallied the team to beat that goal a month early, netting each team member an extra bonus at year’s end.
  • Ownership of career development. Rather than requiring formal review and approval before allowing employees to begin a training program to advance their career, allow employees to take ownership of their career development. At our restaurants, employees sign up on their own to become “certified” in various jobs. The more certifications, the more money they make. As a result, we have enthusiastic employees who rise up the ranks and even go on to senior leadership positions at our company and elsewhere.
  • Deliver constant feedback. A constant feedback loop is critical to building trust. Develop a system for employees to openly discuss where they fell short and where they excelled on the job that day, week, or month. Through this honest conversation, you can begin to appreciate your employees’ honesty, while your employees are empowered to improve their processes and even those of the organization.
  • Hire deliberately. It’s easier to trust your employees when you’ve been more thoughtful about who you’re hiring. We put a crazy amount of resources into ensuring that we’re hiring team members whose personalities and aptitudes are consistent with our purpose and values. Sometimes we get it wrong, but the vast majority of the time we hire people who get what we’re about and want to grow and perform at their best.
  • Encourage employees to make their own decisions. We teach specific tools team members can use to solve problems on their own. Also, when team members ask for permission to set up the sandwich line, take a break, clock out, or receive a raise, I turn the question around and ask: What do you think? What activity could you be tracking right now to make that decision for yourself? Empowering employees minute-by-minute sends a powerful message: we really mean what we say about trusting you to make the right choice.

Presuming employees guilty is a grim way to approach managing a small business. It’s also unnecessary. Most employees are intrinsically good and represent a hugely untapped source of value in companies. Instead of policing employees, focus on giving them the support and freedom they need to learn on the job. Monitor your employees with an eye toward affirming them and helping them grow. You won’t be disappointed.

–Nick Sarillo is owner of Nick’s Pizza & Pub restaurants in Crystal Lake and Elgin, Ill., and the author of A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business (Portfolio, September 2012). He can be found online at and @nicksarillo.

[Image: Flickr user Rubén Chase]