Ice Cream Sandwiches and Trust


by Niel Nickolaisen, Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner

In becoming the angry, bitter person that I am today I have learned one important lesson - trust is the foundation that supports all great workplace cultures. If the organization trusts me, I am much more committed. If my boss trusts me, I am much more engaged. If my team trusts me and I trust my team, we accomplish great things. Yet, there are many things that we do reduce trust. Sometimes, the trust destoyers are the actions of others and sometimes they are processes we put in place - processes that send a strong message of low trust.

My favorite personal example of a low trust process occurred in 2013. To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday we held a team "potluck" lunch. We asked (but did not require) anyone on the team to bring something to share with the rest of the team. In addition to bringing my secret recipe ribs, I always volunteered to bring the ice cream treats. On the evening of July 2nd I went to the local membership club and purchased a few cases of ice cream sandwiches. I spent a total of around $57.

On July 3rd, I brought the treats to work, enjoyed the lunch with my team and ate my weight in ice cream sandwiches. We all had a great time. The problem came about two weeks later when it was time for me to file an expense reimbursement for the ice cream sandwiches. To process the reimbursement, I pulled the receipt out of my wallet, laid it on the copy machine glass, closed the copy machine lid and pressed "copy." Little did I know that when I had closed the lid, the slight breeze had canted the receipt on the glass so that the copy - the piece of paper I submitted with my expense report - had cut off the final digit of the year on the receipt. Rather than the receipt date being July 2, 2013 the receipt read July 2, 201. I did not notice the missing digit, threw away my original receipt (the accounting team only accepted copies of receipts), submitted my expense report and waited for the big money.

About a week later, a member of the accounting team contacted me to tell me that they could not process my reimbursement because they were not sure in which year I had purchased the ice cream sandwiches. My first question was, "Are you kidding me?" The accountant explained that their expense report audit standard required that they know the date of the expense and my copy of the receipt was missing the final digit in the year. "So," I countered, "you think I have been carrying around this ice cream sandwich receipt since 2010, 2011 or 2012 and decided that this is the year for me to slip it through?" She was insistent that she could not process the reimbursement without knowing the year. I asked, "So, how do we get past this?" She told me that I needed to go back to the store and get a duplicate receipt that showed the entire date. I then reminded her that I could, on my signature alone, sign contracts of up to $500,000 and so it seemed a bit overkill to question a reimbursement of $57 - particularly when it was pretty clear that that receipt was from 2013 (I asked again why would I carry around an old receipt for one or more years.) She told me that I had no choice. If I wanted to be reimbursed I needed to submit a receipt that read 2013. In retrospect, I should have reacted differently. Instead I said things like "this is why people hate your team," "do we really pay you to be this stupid," "are you even capable of common sense," and a few other things. What I do know is that I later apologized after I found out that she spent the next few hours crying.

What does this story have to do with trust and great workplace cultures? The reimbursement process was built on a foundation of suspicion - it assumes that no one could be trusted. What is the alternative? To base our processes on trust - trust that we then verify over time.

How else can we apply this idea of trust first? I have wasted too many hours of my life preparing for and sitting in project status reporting meetings. Whoever is holding the meeting has developed a highly-detailed reporting template that requires intimacy about all of the activities, tasks, issues, budgets, percent-complete, critical path analyses, et cetera. We spend hours gathering the data for the template and then hours more in the meeting to review the data. What is the basis for such detailed status reports? That the meeting organizer does not trust the team to know what and how to deliver the project without the organizer's incredible insight - insight that the organizer can only get by gathering the intimate project details. Years ago I replaced this type of status reporting with three questions:

  • What have you delivered since the last time we met?
  • What will you deliver before we meet again?
  • What problems are you having that you need me to resolve for you?

These questions assume that the people on the team know what they are doing, are holding themselves accountable and, if they are having problems, will let me know rather than hoping that I will, through my micro-management, detect when they need my help.

Trust is bi-directional. I need to trust my teams and they need to trust me. Likewise, our processes must trust me and I must trust our processes. When we have relationships and processes based on trust, it truly is magical. So, do me a big favor - assess your processes and ask if they are based on suspicion or trust. And, if based on suspicion, turn them to processes of trust.

Niel Nickolaisen is the Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner. Niel is the author of "The Agile Culture" and "Stand Back and Deliver." Niel is passionate about helping leaders deliver in three areas: enable strategy, achieve operational excellence and create great workplace cultures - cultures based on trust and ownership.