The Adaptive Agency Blog

How Low-Trust Bosses Hurt Business

by | Jan 13, 2023 | Talent

I have a lot of amazing employees. I mean really amazing. I’m talking about “get out of their way and let them do great stuff,” amazing. Many of them came from places where they were treated like sub-humans.

Genevieve is one of them.


Story Time

Genevieve was working at a restaurant/bar. She loved working with customers, and they loved working with her.

But the boss didn’t.

He would come in every day and spend six hours watching the previous day’s security videos at high speed. Why? To catch his employees breaking the rules. He was a low-trust, insecure person with no other value to add.

Finally, after a few months, he found it: one of the employees forgot to ring up a soda.

She was fired instantly, and that justified the months of distrust and snooping. She had, after all, given away 15 cents’ worth of carbonated sugar water.

But being a snoop wasn’t enough. He also was the Lord of Break-Taking. He told the adults who worked for him when they could go to the bathroom, eat, etc. Sometimes they’d go a full shift with no breaks.

In spite of all this, Genevieve wanted to do great things to make customers happy and keep them coming back. But the personal risk was simply too high. So she played by the rules until she found a new job.

Which, fortunately for us, was at Client Focus.

Megan’s comment? “I felt like I was already in trouble and hadn’t done anything wrong. He assumed we were all guilty until proven innocent.” Imagine waking up every day to go to a job where you would carry that burden around every day! What kind of work would get done?

I’ve heard at least 100 versions of this story from our employees over the years. Here are some key takeaways from those stories.


1. Low-trust bosses are low-resolution thinkers.

People like Genevieve’s boss don’t have good analytical chops. They focus on trivial, obvious costs that are easy to control. They let complex costs like customer and employee churn bleed their businesses dry.

Moreover, they have no concept of talent or how to leverage it. In fact, they don’t even believe in talent—just labor that can’t be trusted and labor cost that needs to be minimized.

They throw around cliches like “The customer comes first.” Then they traumatize the very people with whom the customers interact.

So what’s the result?

  1. They bring down their employee’s value.
  2. They chase away the best talent.
  3. They destroy their Return on Talent.

They are like the outgoing tide that lowers all boats. Breathtaking.

My recipe for success for the past 12 years has hinged 100% on finding and leveraging undervalued talent. No different than any other asset. (And yes, talent is an asset, not a liability or a cost.)

My arithmetic of business success works something like this:

I want to make money for the owners of the company. The only way to do that is to have customers who keep paying us. Customers only keep paying us if they have a good experience and get good value.

And who provides that value? Bingo.

So I find people who haven’t been allowed to be great and remove their handcuffs. Win!


2. Low-trust bosses are insecure.

These bosses assume that they should do all the thinking. So they either hire people who don’t think or hire smart people and make them dumb. Employees are afraid to take the initiative or share ideas, and when they do, they get rejected or even penalized.

Rather than encouraging people to take chances and increase their value, low-trust bosses just want them to stay in their lane and do what they’re told. In other words, “I’m smarter than everyone put together.” And the low-trust boss is the only one who doesn’t recognize how pathetic that is.

It’s the emperor’s new clothes.

Each month I have a meet and greet with our new employees. I always ask this question:

“Who do you think knows more about making calls, you, the brand new hire who has only made calls for a week, or me, the Vice President who’s been here for seven years?”

They can sense something’s up, and one of them just blurts it out. “Matt, I think it’s me, because you don’t make calls.”


I want them to know from day one that they’re the experts. Once they’ve been trained, we count on them to do all the great stuff. There’s no ego, no insecurity, no holier-than-thou. Just “Let’s be awesome.”


3. Great talent will leave if they can’t do great things.

Unlike average talent, great talent needs to do great stuff in order to be fulfilled and feel challenged. They want to spot problems and fix them. They want to make things better. They care more about customer feedback than they do about the boss’s status quo. They lose their minds when a less-qualified boss asserts authority to keep them in line.

And this matters because great talent only costs 10%-30% more than mediocre talent. But they can eventually provide 2x, 5x, or even 10x the value if nobody holds them back. In fact, there’s a natural law about that called “Price’s Law”:

  • The square root of the people in a domain produces half the output value.
  • So if you have ten people in an organization, 3 produce half the value.
  • 100 people? Ten produce half the value.

This isn’t so hard to believe, is it?

But those high-value people usually end up in the crosshairs of low-trust bosses.

If the only thing they can align with is “how not to get fired,” they’ll hit the road. And it happens all the time. Then I hire them, and they turn out to be amazing.


What to do.

First, trust your people.

Suppose you can’t. Suppose they’re just terrible employees. Ok, we’ll duct tape them to a rocket and launch them to the moon. Then you can build an entirely new team. Will you be able to trust them? Or will they turn out to be terrible, also?

Second, don’t put a low-trust manager in charge of your best people.

So many middle managers crave that position where they’re superior to everyone else. They actually look forward to being able to tell other people what to do. And they’re instinctively punitive. Don’t let them anywhere near your employees.

When you extend trust and give people time, the great ones will do amazing things.