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The City of Copenhagen: Work based on trust, not control

The City of Copenhagen: Work based on trust, not control

| Text: Marie Preisler

Managing and leading public sector jobs using trust can help solve the complex challenges facing the Nordic welfare states, believes a researcher behind a new study on the Copenhagen trust reform. She challenges the Nordics to share experiences of trust-based management and leadership.

The word “trust” has been given new meaning in many workplaces in the City of Copenhagen since it introduced a “trust reform” six years ago. It came in response to a growing tide of criticism of tight fiscal regulations and because many employees felt they were loosing motivation and sight of their core task because they spent so many hours on paperwork. 

The City of Copenhagen began a hunt for unnecessary management demands which represented obstacles to productivity, and challenged municipal workplaces to try leadership and management models which were more based on trust. That process proved to be difficult but it also provided many new perspectives, according to the first Danish study of trust-based management and leadership.

In the summer of 2016, researcher Tina Øllgaard Bentzen defended her PhD thesis ‘Trust-based management and leadership in public organisations – from ambition to practice’, which looked at the change processes which had been taking place in a number of the City Copenhagen’s workplaces which had applied trust-based management and leadership. 

One of the main conclusions is that trust-based management opens up for new types of cooperation between leadership and employees, as the latter become “co-leaders”, she explains.

“Earlier, management and control systems fell to the leadership, while employees and their representatives could not influence decisions. Now the employee has become a kind of co-leader, who is invited into the boardroom and who legitimately can challenge the status quo and be part of creating new kinds of management,” says Tina Øllgaard Bentzen.

Co-leaders and governors

The aim of trust-based leadership is to create an organisation which to a much larger degree is self-led, she explains. For this you need involvement, delegation and skills development. It does not, however, mean the formal leader becomes less important: Trust-based leadership is deeply dependent on leaders who manage to support self-leadership, and it needs leaders who are consistent, humble and willing to take a risk. The political, administrative and professional leadership must act as a kind of “meta-governors”, her thesis concludes.

Employees need to get used to their new role as co-leaders too. With more influence comes more responsibility, and that can be a challenge to some employees and their representatives, believes Tina Øllgaard Bentzen.

Even thought the trust reform was a reaction against control, it has not removed the need for control, she underlines.

“My research challenges the assumption that control is the opposite of trust. This is not always the case. While employees consider some forms of control to be nothing but distrust and obstacles, they are happy with control which they find to be meaningful and which is built on trust.”

Many benefits

The Copenhagen experience shows that working with trust-based management and leadership takes time. But is has been time well spent, according to Tina Øllgaard Bentzen’s study. Employees are both happier and more engaged in their work when leadership is built on trust. 

“Most employees feel this is really good, because it builds on the belief that public sector employees are very motivated to contribute and create the best solutions for the citizens. This represents a fight back after a long period of new public management in the public sector, which was based on the idea that employees would be focussing on suboptimisation,” says Tina Øllgaard Bentzen.

The impact of trust-based management and leadership on workplace efficiency has yet to be measured, but Tina Øllgaard Bentzen has no doubts that this is not only a plus for employees, but for the workplace, citizens in general and the public sector as a whole.

“Other research shows that a high degree of trust increases people’s productivity, their feeling of delivering high quality, their engagement and general health. And the sum of the stories from workplaces detailed in my study shows that trust-based management has led to solutions which have been better tailored to suit citizens, which is sorely needed.“

Need for a Nordic drive

She points out that many of the public sector’s current tasks are so complex that solutions cannot be found without involving employees and citizens. This is where trust-based leadership can contribute with something very valuable, and the Nordic countries should lead the way and look closer at the untapped potentials of trust-based management, she believes:

“New public management is about to be replaced with the management paradigm new public government, to which trust and relations and co-creation are central. The change is underway both in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, but so far we are talking about only isolated measures. So Nordic cooperation, networks and knowledge sharing can really make a difference here.”

There have been many studies into public management and leadership, but her study is one of the few empirical studies of trust-based management and leadership in a Danish and Nordic public sector context. 

As an extension to the City of Copenhagen’s trust reform, the then Danish government also introduced a national trust reform aimed at cutting unnecessary systems of control in public sector workplaces. Yet the reform was never fully implemented, says Tina Øllgaard Bentzen.

Filed under:
Tina Øllgaard Bentzen

Is a consultant with a private consulting firm

Has held leadership roles

In the summer of 2016 she defended her PhD thesis on trust-based management and leadership in public sector organisations, built on experiences from the City of Copenhagen.

About trust-based leadership and management

A way of managing which gives greater scope for action at a local level, and which creates better conditions for self governance by easing off restrictions for the individual employee allowing them to adapt to the context they are in. Closer relations to management is needed, allowing employees to participate in the design of management tools.

About the study

The PhD thesis ”Trust-based management and leadership in public sector organisations – the leap from ambition to practice" is based on a qualitative case study of workplaces at the City of Copenhagen.

It identifies five main obstacles to the introduction of trust-based management and leadership:

  • Structural obstacles can complicate decision making processes for changes in management.
  • A lack of resources e.g. while cuts have to be made.
  • A lack of motivation or skills among employees when it comes to taking on extra responsibility linked to trust-based management and leadership.
  • Conflicting expectations lead to differences in the understanding of trust.
  • Habit can mean that established ways of doing things within the organisation are sometimes so strong that they are hard to change. 

Made in cooperation with the University of Roskilde and financed by the City of Copenhagen, the Copenhagen Teachers' Association and the Organisations of Public Employees – Denmark (OAO).

Read the thesis here (in Danish)


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