The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.
It all boils down to trust
I’m more prone to promote informal learning than your average business manager because I think most workers are trustworthy at heart. In my experience, when I set high expectations, workers live up to them. Conversely, when I set low expectations, workers live down to them. Few people are dishonest, unreliable, or insincere unless you treat them as if they were.
I also believe it’s wise to take control by giving control. To the extent that you trust workers to do the right thing, grant them the freedom to do it.
Formality = control
The formality or informality of learning is a control issue.
The more an individual is in control of the learning process, the more informal the learning. The more an institution is in control, the more formal.
How much control you give learners depends on how much you trust them to do the right thing. We trust people we can rely on, and we rely on people when we’re confident of their character and ability.
- Character is a moral judgment. Can I trust you to keep your hand out of the till? Can I trust you to keep at it until it’s completed? Can I trust you with my daughter?
- Ability is a matter of understanding and skill. Are you a good driver? Can you appease an irate customer? Do you know how to use Photoshop?
Does the learners have character flaws? If you don’t trust the learners not to stray, you erect guard rails and set boundaries. If you don’t expect them to keep at it until the job is finished, you make them take tests to prove what they learned. If you don’t believe in the learners’ innate desire to excel, you use grades, certificates, and gold stars for as carrots and sticks.
Do the learners have ability? Learners with no experience in a given field don’t understand the lay of the land. These novices not only lack ability, they don’t know what they don’t know. You can’t rely on them to be self-directed so it’s appropriate for someone else to take control of what they’re to learn until they have a basic foundation.
On the other hand, if you trust the learner, you take down the guard rails, open the borders, and do away with tests and grades.
Freeing learners to take their own paths has several advantages.
- When there’s no final exam, there’s no cap on learning. Your learning continues, driven by your curiosity or gut feel that you need to know more or for the sheer joy of mastery. You never graduate. You’re free to be all you can be.
- Knowing you’re in charge enables you to take pride in accomplishment. Pursuing your own self-interest motivates you; empowerment breeds engagement.
- Trusting people to do what’s right eliminates most of the bureaucratic baggage set up to control learners. You don’t need many police when people don’t act like criminals.
Why be an optimist about the innate goodness of people? Because it works better than the alternative.
Trusting human nature
Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Hans Monderman is a Dutch traffic engineer who gained fame for what he didn’t do. Monderman does not like traffic signs. Over-engineering drains things of context. Civic responsibility fades away. Reckless driving ensues. People get hurt.
Monderman was asked to design a bike path for a village. 2,500 children a day would ride on the path. Following his standard routine, he invited the village elders for a walk in another village. There they saw a road with no speed bumps and no chicanes. The lack of signs and obstacles made drivers take responsibility for their actions. Drivers immediately reduced their speed by 10% when alongside the bike path. Eventually, their speed dropped to 50% of what it had been originally, and there it stayed.
Monderman has worked his magic in more than a hundred Dutch communities. He uproots signs. He clears barriers so drivers can easily see pedestrians. Traffic accidents in Holland are 30% of what they were when he began.
Remove the center line from a country lane; people drive more safely. Clutter a road with signs and barriers, and people feel sufficiently protected to drive as fast as they like. Traffic signs indicate a failure of a road’s architecture to communicate context naturally. Hand a traffic engineer a village, and he’ll make it a speedway. Vrrooom, vrrooom.
Monderman says that if you treat people like fools, they act like fools. Take off the training wheels; they drive like grownups.
Most schools and training departments distrust their patrons
Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes, and bumps. If a worker takes a training course but doesn’t learn, what’s her reaction? “The training wasn’t any good.”
Instead of training, what if you tell the worker what she needs to know how to accomplish the job? Offer a variety of ways to get up to speed, from treasure hunts to finding information on the from the company’s social network. This makes the learner take responsibility. There’s no longer an excuse for not learning.
Open up a training course at your company. How many inane signs do you see? Some of them are equivalent to saying, “Here, I don’t trust you to figure this out for yourself.” Schools and training departments doubt their customers’ character or ability, or both.
To make someone a trusted, loyal employee, treat them with trust and respect. If you want workers to be self-motivated and exercise good judgment, give them a challenge and the authority to carry it out.
In a networked world, trust is the most important currency.
Trust is a two-way street. In addition to trusting workers, workers need to trust the organization. Is your organization trustworthy?