The good news: People generally trust the people they work with every day. The bad news, if you’re running a large organization: According to a new survey done by researchers at the London Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management, senior managers trust colleagues in other departments or business units to deliver only 10% of the time.
It seems like a paradox. How can the people on your immediate floor be reliable while everyone else is feckless? But it’s really a more complicated phenomenon. “Most people are well-intended and do want to help,” says Rebecca Homkes, a teaching fellow at the London Business School, who worked on the survey. Larger organizational problems, however, make it hard to follow through. Fortunately, it is possible to create a more reliable organization over time once you know what’s going on.
The major problem, according to Homkes’s survey of more than 11,000 senior managers at 400-plus companies, is that people are unclear on corporate priorities. When asked, only a third of senior managers could correctly identify what the CEO had identified as the firm’s top three priorities. “When you drop one or two levels below the CEO, your ability to form a holistic picture is simply lost,” she says. In this vacuum, “you’re leaving managers across the organization to prioritize by themselves.”
This becomes an issue when someone in another department asks for help. People aren’t sure where these requests fit in with overall priorities. They could simply decline to help, but that leads to another problem: the never-say-no culture. The modern workplace features “the heroic notion that we can always work harder and do more,” says Homkes. “Saying no makes it look like you’re not busy enough.” So people don’t say no, but they don’t give a wholehearted yes, either. It’s more of a passive commitment, the I’ll-see-what-I-can-do sort.
Then, when things get busy, managers who don’t know what’s vital to the organization as a whole naturally focus first on what’s most important to their business units. Requests from other departments get lost in the shuffle. Hence the reason senior managers believe they can’t count on other units. It looks, says Homkes, like “we only care about our own silo.”
But that’s not inevitable. First, says Homkes, leaders need to be more clear about a firm’s top priorities and what each business unit should be doing to support these. To be sure, many leaders assume they’re already doing that. Homkes notes that numerous CEOs protest that they’ve held town halls with the top three priorities listed on a slide. The problem is, “They also have 299 other PowerPoint slides that say other things,” she says. It becomes one more thing, like new parking policies. It’s lost in the flood of information.
Second, organizations need to get in the habit of expecting and offering active commitments, not passive ones. A request should be accompanied by a statement such as, “I really need this piece of data by Friday at noon.” The person receiving the request then responds, “I will get you this piece of data by Friday at noon.” It’s a yes with a deadline.
Key to this: It also has to be okay to say no. “That way, if I do say yes, you know I’m really going to do it,” says Homkes. She describes some organizations that have gone so far as to create “No” cards that managers are supposed to use a certain number of times per year. It sounds silly, but the goal is to change the reality of large organizations, where Homkes’s survey found that only 20% of senior managers thought that if colleagues in other business units couldn’t deliver on a commitment, they’d inform them promptly. A clear “no” at least allows managers to make other plans.
Finally, smart leaders understand why people are reliable with their immediate colleagues. While you might drop a stranger’s request, social dynamics mean that you don’t want to hurt the woman in the next cubicle, both because you like her and you bump into her all the time. Distributed and international teams are the reality of business, but whenever possible, smart leaders arrange for people to get to know each other across units. That way, “when you send me that request, I can put a face with a name and know who I’m helping out,” Homkes says.