Trust, But Verify: The Key Management Tool To Build Team Satisfaction

Photo of author

By Jimmy Daly

Delegation is one of the hardest management tools for leaders to learn.

We all understand that micromanaging your employees isn’t good for anyone, but when you’re used to being involved in everything, it can be hard to let go. It gets easier as you hire great people and implement sound processes—watching your company grow without your fingerprint on everything is a beautiful thing.

Perspective helps too.

trust but verify micro management yoda

“As a recovering perfectionist, I know how hard it is to hand over control,” writes Million Dollar Women author Julia Pimsleur on her blog. It feels good to know that other entrepreneurs struggle with the same challenges that I do. But something Julia said in that post really resonated with the way we run I Done This and how we hope others use I Done This in their own businesses.

“Trust, but verify.” Give people room to get things done without looking over their shoulder, but do make sure to double-check the work.

Finding that balance is hard in any environment, but doubly so for remote teams. Interestingly, a number of companies have turned to I Done This to help solve this exact problem.

TripAdvisor VP Luc Levesque is a perfect example. He manages a team that works across three offices. Instead of calling or emailing everyone for status updates, everyone provides passive status reports in their daily I Done This updates. With this simple management tool, Luc can easily trust that the work is getting done without his team feeling like someone is watching over their shoulder.

“I frankly give people more freedom in terms of not having to talk to me every day,” he says. “They can run their things and execute towards their goals. If I see there’s something that’s not being worked on, we can sync up better.”

trust but verify Dilbert

Balancing Autonomy and Oversight

A little basic psychology explains why it’s so important for managers to give their employees the freedom to do their work. Cal Newport introduced to me to Self-Determination Theory, an idea that has been researched and validated for decades. It says that to be happy at work, people need just three things.

    • Autonomy: control over how they manage their time;
    • Competence: the opportunity to master their skill, and;
    • Relatedness: “a feeling of connection to others.

Trust, but verify as a management tool supports the Self-Determination Theory in two key ways.

Trust = Autonomy

Allowing people the freedom to do their work makes it easier for them to complete the work and feel satisfied with it. Happy employees have ownership of their work.

Verify = Relatedness and Competence

Done well, verifying your team’s work is an opportunity for constructive feedback and growth. Everyone moves forward when managers push their employees to do great work and offer helpful feedback on their progress.

As everyone gets more comfortable with the process, job satisfaction and the quality of work increases, while the temptation to micromanage decreases.

It’s important to remember that, in this case, trust isn’t useful without verification. Complete autonomy creates an environment where people are working without context. All spokes need a hub.

Professor Claus Langfred makes this point clear in his survey of MBA students at Washington University. He discovered that when team members trusted each other too much, the quality of the work suffered.

[Langfred] found that when these team members trusted each other, they tended not to monitor one another much. As a result, they had relatively low awareness of each other’s activities, which affected performance, probably by hampering processes and coordination.

Management is both art and science. It takes practice to achieve the right balance. Here are a few suggestions from our own experience to help along the way.

How to Implement “Trust, But Verify” as a Crucial Management Tool

You’re probably already using some variation on these ideas to manage projects and team members. Hopefully these three suggestions can help crystallize a process that is working really well at a lot of companies, ours included.

Use Work Logs to Verify Passively

Imagine calling every team member at the end of their day to find out what they accomplished. This might check the “verification” box, but it’s a waste of your time. Perhaps more importantly, it would place undue stress on your employees.

We built I Done This to enable passive verification. When each employee records their work for the day, it’s extremely easy to keep tabs on it without singling anyone out.

More often than not, however, companies have the opposite problem. Islands of information form. People start to lose track of what projects are important and what needs to be done to finish them. Without a system in place to collect all this information, it’s easy to get off track.

“Everyday coordination costs have the potential to get worse and worse as the team scales up,” says Twitter Senior Director of Engineering Rich Paret. His team saves on these costs by investing in tools that enable passive, asynchronous communication. Finding information and checking in with employees is often a distraction from the real work that drives growth. Passive verification, a friction-free way of communicating proves to be an excellent management tool.

Default to Transparency

“Transparency breeds trust,” writes Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne. “And trust is the foundation of great teamwork.”

His team shares everything to ensure that the company can move at a fast pace and each employee is armed with the information and context they need to do their job.

Instead of singling out employees who aren’t doing their best work, consider asking everyone to share information on their work in a place where everyone can see it. Asking just one employee to update you on their work could make them resent you. This avoids that problem while also giving you insight into how your best employees get their work done. There’s so much to learn from both ends of the spectrum.

Michelle Sun, formerly of Buffer’s growth and analytics team, says that the transparency makes her “feel connected with the team.” That ticks the “relatedness” checkbox from the Self-Determination Theory we talked about earlier. If transparency moves people closer to autonomy and relatedness, the question becomes: why wouldn’t you share your work with the whole team?

Offer Constructive Feedback

As you verify your employees’ work, you will inevitably find that some just isn’t up to par. Giving constructive feedback is perhaps the most difficult part of making the “Trust, But Verify” model work effectively.

At the same time, this presents a great opportunity for growth. The third component of job satisfaction is competence, defined as the opportunity to master a skill. No one masters a skill alone, so the opportunity to help an employee improve their work helps them achieve satisfaction in their work.

If you discover an issue that needs to be addressed, don’t avoid it. A conflict avoidance cycle (PDF) is a dangerous and difficult environment to navigate.

Source: Lulofts, Roxanne S., and Dudley D. Cahn, Conflict: From Theory to Action, Allyn and Bacon, 2000

Collecting daily updates with a tool like I Done This is a good way to mitigate the risks of the Conflict Avoidance Cycle. Frequently updated, transparent work logs keep both successes and challenges at the top of everyone’s mind.

When it comes time to give feedback, the key is meeting your employee in the middle. An environment where they want to improve and you can help them improve is a healthy one. A presentation from the University of Southern California (PDF) offers some helpful suggestions for providing feedback. And while it’s important to nail down the delivery, it’s paramount that you create an environment where the pursuit of mastery is not only expected but facilitated.

If you trust that your employees are working towards mastery, expect that they will stumble along the way. Everyone should be comfortable failing. If your long-term visions are aligned, it will make it easy to learn from these experiences and move a step closer to mastery.

Micromanage the process, not the people.

“Trust, But Verify” may be a simple management tool, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement. It takes practice, failure and buy-in from the whole team to work. But when it does, it creates a workplace that people are invested in.

Do you have any questions about we manage “Trust, But Verify” at I Done This? Drop a note in the comments—we’d be happy to chat more about it.


Boost Your Productivity In 5 Minutes

Get daily tactics, insights, and tools to get more done.