How to use “trust but verify” to manage staff, processes, and workflow

By Mike Cardus  |  Organizational Development Consultant, Executive Exchange Facilitator

I’m a facilitator for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s Executive Exchange program. When Executive Exchange members and I discuss managing staff, processes, and workflow, we often use the phrase “trust but verify,” which was made famous by former President Ronald Reagan. We recently had a lively discussion about how to do this and I’d like to share the highlights with you so that you can use these best practices in your own workplace.


“Trust but verify” requires you to follow-up

According to “Coaching for Improved Work Performance” by Ferdinand Fournies, managers follow up for two reasons:

  • People are doing what they are supposed to be doing. In this case, the purpose of follow-up is to maintain performance by providing feedback or reinforcing good performance by letting an employee know that their good work is noticed.
  • People are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Here, the purpose of follow-up is to improve performance by asking, “How can I help?” The manager must give feedback and provide clarity on the goal, find out why the employee’s behavior is occurring, and communicate priorities to the employee.

It’s the manager’s job to remove obstacles, remove negative consequences for good performance (and positive consequences for poor performance), help the employee work around personal problems, and teach them what you thought they knew—but didn’t. Finally, a manager must be prepared to deliver a negative consequence for poor performance.


“Trust but verify” requires you to ask questions

Within Executive Exchange, we refer to the Five Questions below as a framework that can work like a skeleton key in your management toolbox. This question-based skeleton key, taken from “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother, works with almost every employee in most situations. The questions support “trust but verify” and support learning and development of the employee and you through coaching and feedback.

Five Questions Skeleton Key: Managers can ask these questions in order. Be careful to let the person respond and avoid the temptation to give directives. The questions are the key to verification and trust.

  1. What is the improvement or target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition right now?
  3. What are the obstacles you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step? What do you expect to learn from that step?
  5. When can we meet again and go and see what you learned from taking that step?

Using follow-up and coaching questions will develop your skills as a manager, develop the employee’s skills as a problem solver, and support communication plus learning within the organization. As you use the questions more and more, you will gain more knowledge of operations and areas for improvement.

Mike has a focused expertise in team building, managerial leadership, and organizational development. He is frequently asked to create solutions to address the development of high-performance teams, retention of talent, innovation of product and profit streams, group conflict, coaching of leaders, developing systems to drive positive behaviors, and development of skilled knowledge to increase organizational and personal effectiveness. Learn more about Mike here.