Employee Satisfaction

Trust: Oil In a Transaction Machine

Why do so many people hate their job? And why do others love their job. Quiz your friends and acquaintances. You’ll hear complaints like “long and boring meetings,” “ignore suggestions,” “bitter turf wars being fought out,” and “a blame culture.”

Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, has made a living by portraying all the niceties of everyday work.

Yet there are companies that are fun to work for.

So what’s the difference? How can you tell?

I studied physics. I’m proud to be an IT geek. And I am happy to be an entrepreneur. To be honest, I revel in it. Twenty years ago I started a company called TOPdesk. We make service management software, but I won’t bother you with that. But over time we have grown to more than 500 people working in offices around the world. That’s all nice and well, and I’m quite proud of that, but what I am most proud of is that we have won several job satisfaction awards over the course of several years in a row — meaning people like working at my company; they think it’s fun!

That’s cool. We’re doing something right.

So what’s the secret sauce?

Well, could it be that when you show people around our office they almost immediately notice the gadgets we have? An old pinball machine, table tennis table, foosball, video games … whatever. I can picture the flash of light in your eyes and your saying, “Ah, wait a minute, I get it. People love these gadgets! So, if I, in my company, buy those gadgets, the people will be happy as well, won’t they?”

No; you’re not getting it. It’s something else. Let me try to explain.

I have a beautiful life; I have two lovely kids, a boy and a girl. And it makes your life really wonderful, you know, but for one thing: If you want to spend the night out with your wife, you need to arrange something; the kids need to be attended to that night. So what do you do? Well you could call in the services of a babysitter, of course. You know, typically a girl in the neighborhood that’s willing to spend the night at your house for a certain amount of money negotiated beforehand. That’s fine. But I’m in the lucky position that I have fine neighbors.

So, alternatively, I can just walk up to my neighbor’s door, ring, they open up the door and I ask if they can take care of the kids for the night. They say “Yeah, sure.” Cool. Nice. Relaxed. No costs for me. No negotiations. Easily organized. Problem solved.

My neighbors do not immediately expect a reward for the service. They just do me a favor because they trust that my wife and me will return the favor at some point in the future in due time; like watering the plants or taking care of their kids when they are in a traffic jam or when the kids need picking up from school. They think and trust that our favors will balance out in the long run.

I can put it more eloquently: We don’t try to screw each other. We try to help each other out; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours; so simple.

But this is a very interesting concept, trust. It relates more to a company that you might expect. I think trust is oil in a transaction machine. I think a lot of dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies in companies come from a basic lack of trust; of payback instead of pay forward. Let me give an example. People join my company, that’s good. And I have the habit of six months after they’ve worked for me to ask them to join me for a meeting. What I try to do there is get a feeling of how they perceive my company. I want to hear the good, of course, but also the bad and the ugly. Tell me all. I can do something with it.

In every one of these meetings, at some point, I’ll hear this: “Well, what I find so amazing is that it’s so easy to get help from a coworker. If I ask something I immediately get an answer, and if they don’t have a clue, at least they point me in the right direction.” I notice, especially those with work experience, that most find this very refreshing. That’s strange! I think that’s normal.

Apparently, it’s a funny thing that someone spends a precious bit of time helping out their coworker without getting something immediately in return. If you don’t have this trust, questions will not be answered, knowledge will not flow. Processes will remain inefficient.

Trust is oil in a transaction machine.

Nothing is more depressing to me than if someone has a good idea on how to improve things and they are being implemented because the leaders don’t trust the person. Trust is oil in a transaction machine. You might say that I am a green tea-drinking, lama hugging, world idealist who thinks that the only thing that keeps us from world peace is blind trust in people. It’s not that simple, it’s not that soft. The neighborhood I am talking about, my neighborhood, happens to be filled with trustworthy neighbors, but there are other neighborhoods that are not. In reality, you can’t tell so you have to be cautious, but in a company, there is a higher authority and it’s called a boss.

The boss decides who joins the company. The boss has a strong influence on the corporation and who is in it. So, it’s up to a boss to decide if they want to have a trustful atmosphere and, if so, how they hang onto it.

How do you go about it? It’s not easy.

First, find the right people. Every management book will tell you this, so what’s new here? Well, what I’m trying to say is that you have to take it seriously. We do two rounds with new candidates. The first round, we only look at if this person will fit our company. Do they have a spark in their eyes? Are they passionate? Are they willing to help a lot of other people? Do they take initiative? Do they trust, and can they be trusted? Only if I find that then they go to the next round and then we look at skill set. Is the person also competent to do the job at hand?

Now, this has two drawbacks. First, it takes an enormous amount of time. Each takes two rounds and each round takes two of our people and each round will take two hours, and we reject a lot of people. More seriously, the focus on the soft skills does not always correlate to the hard skills we need so the person we are looking for in hard skills is a rare combination meaning that it can sometimes be very hard to fill certain positions. This hinders our growth even if we could grow further, if we can’t find the right people, we just don’t.

We could give in. I’ve found some very talented people with not the right soft skills so we didn’t hire them. We think it’s so important to stick to these principles. So first, select the right people for your neighborhood. Second, make sure that they help each other out. If the manager has the right people then he has to uphold this culture. Normally that’s easy, right? People start helping each other out, especially if you pick the right people. The hard part comes when someone slips through. What will then happen is that the atmosphere will start to go down. Then it’s up to the team leader to say, “Look, what you are doing is not helping out. You’re keeping knowledge to yourself, you’re not answering questions, that’s not making work any more fun does it.”

And sometimes it doesn’t work out and then I really expect the team to have a maybe-you-should-pursue-your-career-elsewhere conversation. It’s up to the boss to uphold the culture.

What I’m trying to say here is: Dear bosses, do you want a more trustful and, therefore, more efficient organization? Make the choice, find the right people and uphold the culture. Ask yourself, in what kind of neighborhood do I want to live? If you look around and find yourself in the wrong neighborhood, find a better one.


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Written by: Wolter Smit, co-founder and CEO of TOPdesk.

Wolter Smit

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Co-founder and CEO at TOPdesk
Wolter Smit is has been widely recognised for his achievements as an entrepreneur and his approach to employee satisfaction. Wolter is co-founder and CEO of TOPdesk, a global provider of IT service management software solutions.
Wolter Smit

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