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Trust makes the workplace more innovative
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Trust makes the workplace more innovative

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Tomas Bertelsen

Signe Jarvad is the boss of 60 employees at Copenhagen’s Leisure and Culture Administration and not afraid of making decisions. But not without sounding out all relevant parties, and she also leaves many of the decisions to the employees. She believes this has led to higher work satisfaction and more innovation.

It is Friday and staff at the municipal library in the Copenhagen neighbourhood of Valby are holding a staff meeting. Their boss, Signe Jarvad, is not present. Charing these meetings is one of the many tasks she has delegated to staff as part of a strategy for leading the workplace more through trust than control. 

“We have chosen to introduce trust-based leadership and management, so delegation has become a key word. There is no need for me to participate in every staff meeting if my workers can chair them as well or better themselves,” says Signe Jarvad. 

She and her staff are responsible for the City of Copenhagen’s leisure and culture activities for citizens in the Vesterbro, Kgs Enghave and Valby neighbourhoods – libraries, culture houses, sports facilities, swimming pools and citizen services. Their workplace is one of many in the City of Copenhagen which have worked hard to implement the trust reform initiated by the City five years ago.

Signe Jarvad’s staff work across six different locations, and Jarvad manages it all together with three middle managers. One of her first decisions when she started working with the trust reform was to throw all leadership tasks into the air and see who were best at solving them. That exercise proved that many of the leadership tasks could be better solved by ordinary employees. What followed was a reorganisation, the axing of a middle management position and today staff are much closer involved in making far more decisions than before.

“Working with trust-based leadership has made me extremely keen on making sure decisions are being made in the right place by the right people. Our decision making processes have become more transparent, and we make sure issues are looked at from all relevant angles before a decision is made,” she says.

Accepting control

Some people therefore believe trust-based management equals the absence of management, or leadership through consensus. That is completely wrong, says Signe Jarvad:

“In some ways I am now even more present and clear as a leader for my staff, because we have a closer dialogue and cooperation on which solutions to choose. They don’t always get what they want, but everyone is being heard.”

It is difficult to provide close leadership with many employees across different sites. That is why all employees meet their closest leader once a month for a brief appraisal.

Another common misconception about trust-based management is that it replaces control. But trust and control are not opposites. Registration and documentation is still needed, including that of employees’ use of time. But trust-based leadership can make sure the control is meaningful, points out Signe Jarvad.

“We can and will become even better at working with data and registries, and in my experience staff feel control is absolutely fine and even a comfort, as long as it has a meaningful purpose and is not just implemented as part of a policy decision. That could be seen as a sign of mistrust.

Trust to fail

Signe Jarvad feels she has gained a lot as a leader from basing her leadership and management on trust. Some of it can be measured: The workplace scores high on well-being and social capital. But she is also convinced that the quality of the service she and her staff provide to citizen has improved:

“Our staff’s skills are being used to an even better degree than before, which has added great powers of innovation to the organisation.”

Working with trust has benefited her greatly personally too. 

“It has been extremely exciting to be part of developing this, and my own boss has also delegated more responsibility to me, which is very motivating.”

Trust-based management has been an efficient antidote to a zero-fail culture. Today she uses her own and employees’ mistakes in a constructive way. 

“We work a lot with prototypes – we put new solutions into practice before they are entirely ready, and accept and learn from the beginners’ mistakes which we then make. You need a great level of trust to do that."

The prototype method has proved beneficial to the workplace’s so-called “medsystem”, a committee where leaders and employee representatives meet and discuss workplace issues. 

“The medsystem was seen by many employees as a closed club, so we made a prototype which for a trial period allowed all employees to attend certain parts of the committee’s meetings, after which time we evaluated it all. This has now become a permanent feature, and we would not have been able to achieve that without the prototype,” says Signe Jarvad. 

Rings in water

The positive effects of trust-based management are now spreading like rings in water:

“First we worked with trust between leaders and staff. As that grows, more tasks are being delegated which again demands more trust between employees. And why stop there? We have begun to show more trust in citizens too.”

One direct consequence of the trust reform is that the City of Copenhagen now gives citizens free access to libraries outside of ordinary opening hours. They can lock themselves in with their health insurance cards and then help themselves. It works. The citizens live up to the trust invested in them, notes Signe Jarvad 

Showing citizens trust also leads to far more innovative solutions than the City has resources to create itself.

“We chose to open a new digital workshop, Copenhagen FabLab, bought all the computers and opened the doors to citizens without having rules in place for everything. We developed them later together with the citizens, and today we have some 300 dedicated users who are equally well equipped to help citizens as our own employees are. They have skills which we cannot even begin to match. With trust we can create something bigger, together.”

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