How You Can Create a Culture of Trust in Your Workplace by Using Pre-Approval

In: BlogDate: Apr 10, 2024By: Henry Stewart

Find out from Henry Stewart how you can create a workplace culture based on trust by using Pre-Approval.

In this 30-minute video, recorded from his live session on 10th April, Henry gives examples from Happy and from Netflix about how Pre-Approval has been used in practice. He also hears from people attending and how Pre-Approval could work in their organisation, and what the barriers are to using it.

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Henry: Okay. So, do any of you come up a solution for people, or a problem for people, and then approve it at the end? Does anybody do that? Yeah?

Okay, I’m going to ask you instead, to approve the solution before they’ve thought of the solution. Does that make sense?

Let me give you some great stories about this.

So we had somebody in our cafe who was 19 years old and wanted to improve the café. Instead of her submitting a report and us doing some committee with it, we approved the budget. And we made sure she understood the values of the organisation. And I saw that for the first time when it was created. Now how do you think she felt, three months into her first job, 19 years old, walking into her cafe?

Type into the chat how you think she felt.

Absolutely. Immensely proud. Awesome. Fantastic.

And that's what we like to create. So we're a training provider. And some years ago a trainer sent me an email saying, I love the three things that you have created to enable us to help the customer.

And I looked at those three things and I realised they hadn't come across my desk. And then I also realised that if they had come across my desk, two of those three things I'd have rejected. Because I started everything at Happy. And like most managers, I can reject various things.

So I decided then that things wouldn’t need to come across my desk.

So let’s look at the website. In the early days of the website, I thought, “oh, I need to do this. I need to do that. You know can we do this?” And so the person in charge of the website never really felt in charge of the website.

Has anybody been in that kind of situation?  Yeah? So we decided to make a Pre-Approval of it.

Oh, let me just ask you a question now. Let me give you a poll.

So what do you like at work? Do you like to be told what to do? Complete freedom? Or freedom within guidelines?

Okay, we've got 29 out of 38. Let's, okay. Got 33, I'll let it go there.

Okay. So, nobody likes to be told what to do. And I get that very often. There's a few anarchists who like complete freedom. But most of you like freedom within guidelines. And that's what I find, you know, generally 90% like freedom within guidelines.

So on the website, we decided to have freedom within guidelines.

We agreed the branding. We agreed the metrics, the metrics would be how many people visited and how much income was generated. We got Johnny to go on the best Search Engine Optimisation course. And we also insisted that Johnny be talking to clients. And when I looked at that website the night before it launched, I wasn't particularly keen on it. I thought, “what's this? And what's that? And what's that?” But it was completely within the guidelines. So up it went. And when we got the metrics two months later, the visitors had tripled and the income had doubled, even without the benefit of my expertise.

And that's one of the keys to Pre-Approval. It isn’t that they will do what you do, it’s that they might do something even better.

Okay, so let me give you another story a story from Netflix. Netflix has a book called No Rules Rules and in it there's a woman called Jennifer Nerver. Jennifer Nerver at Hewlett Packard got had a £200,000 consultancy, and needed to get 20 levels of approval for that consultancy. It took six weeks.

And so at Netflix, she managed to get a million pound consultancy. And she asked the manager, “my goodness, who do I need to get to approve this?” And he said, “nobody, sign it off. If you're agreeable to it, sign it off.”

So my question to you is, is your organisation a Hewlett Packard? Or is it a Netflix?

Let me just share a screen on what Reed Hastings says about this. So Reed Hastings is the CEO of Netflix. Million dollar with no sign off. The key, what he says, is that at most companies, the boss is there to approve or block the decisions of employees. This is a surefire way to limit innovation and slow down growth. When the boss steps out of the role of decision-approver, the entire business speeds up and innovation increases.

Okay. Do people agree with that? Who agrees with that?

Now, of course, a million dollars is a lot of money and you might not be able to do that in your organisation, but we had a client called Social Adventures. Their managers got frustrated with having to approve minor spending, and so they said that anybody could spend up to £250  on anything that they felt was needed. Not only did it free up management time and make sure problems got fixed quickly, but it also led to a 6% fall in spending.

Another example from one of our clients was from, from Hounslow, where previously decisions on funding in block purchase placements and respite for adults with mental health and autism and learning disabilities, got to a forum for approval, and that was a lengthy and time-consuming process.

Helen Taylor, who was it was one of our clients delegated authority to do a team of managers to make placement decisions about what placements up to a cost of £100k.  Helen keeps this under review, as she's required to, and to date has not come across a single decision she would consider misplaced.

So my question to you, is what could you Pre-Approve? Or if you’re an individual, what could you be Pre-Approved for? I’m going to put you into groups to discuss for five minutes.

Okay, folks. What I'd like to ask you is what have you Pre-Approved? If you can put into the chat. What have you Pre-Approved, at any point in time?

Katie, I hope you will do, I hope you will Pre-Approve.

Paul, tell us about when you were too busy.

Paul: Sorry, yes, I'm just not too familiar with Zoom. So I work at the Greater London Authority, and it's a big and complicated organisation, and I've noticed that, you know, it's got a lot of approval levels, a lot of approval processes, lots of complexity. I've noticed that all of those people that tend to get in the way of approving, the only time they get out of the way is when they literally haven't got the time to do it, and they finally then delegate it. I've been guilty myself of that. Or they don't delegate it and just say you don't need this, I trust you. And trust always comes up as a big issue in staff surveys, for example – empowerment and ability to get on with the job. So maybe we need to learn from that. 

Henry: And will do you do more Pre-Approval? 

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, we were having a conversation in our room about the fact that we work with a lot of consultants. The person I was with was a consultant. Consultants in my experience tend to have more freedom to get on and deliver because they've gone through a much bigger process of Pre-Approval through tendering and going into contract.

Henry: Okay. All right. Okay. Okay. And Charles, you, you do work up to £50k, don't you? Tell us about that. 

Charles? Unmute?

Are you there, Charles? Oh, maybe he's not there.

Okay. So Michelle, Pre-Approved for projects and creativity. Tell us more 

Michelle: Yeah, so when I had my breakout group we were looking at - for me I’m Pre-Approved to do projects, to be creative, but I tend to have to ask for approval when I do anything HR or managerial because obviously, that's their role, dare I say that they get paid a lot more than I do to make those decisions.

So, I think I'm probably Pre-Approved to a point, I think, and somethings that they trust the judgment on. And would allow me to maybe sign it off a little bit, but again, it would, I think I'm probably more in that projects and creatives side.

Henry: Okay. Excellent.

Caitlin, you're with an NHS Trust, so you have lots of layers of people, but you are also possibly Pre-Approved? 

Caitlin: Well, within the team, we do improvement huddles. So if somebody says, Oh, I think this resource or this template or something would be good, that idea gets Pre-Approved and then it's for that person or a small group of people to say whatever that improvement idea looks like, but in terms of like where our projects come from… I guess actually we're doing more like A3 thinking where the final solution wouldn't be, so that is kind of Pre-Approval I guess. But all of our work would come top down. But we don’t hold budget. So any budget we would go for, for requests, go through lots of layers.

Henry: Okay.

Well, there's a fair few there. So, that is my key tip. Pre-Approve. Freedom within guidelines.

So, as I say, you know when, if you are a manager, give freedom within guidelines – so you could talk about the budget, who people need to go to, but have that sense of Pre-Approval.

Pre-Approval is very much part of our training programmes. We have a apprenticeship which is 95% funded by the government. So you only pay 700 pounds for level seven program senior leader program over two years and only 225 pounds for the new manager and  350 to the experience manager.

Jason, tell us, tell us a bit more about the Senior Leader Programme.

Jason: It's the best money I've never spent, Henry. 

Yeah, but it really is a phenomenal programme and I guess everyone here is from different sized companies, but from the one I was at, I think the company contribution was about £700 for the two years.

And I enjoyed spending quite a lot of money on books that were recommended readings and stuff, but otherwise there's absolutely no cost associated with it.

And what you get out of it, I mean, the, the tuition and the sessions with Happy are exceptional. Really strong, really making you re-think and challenge the way you go around your management to improve that.

Unless you've restructured it, and I don't think you have, there's also some coaching you get as well, with the with group coaching and also with the tutors.  And, for us just as a group that were on the cohort, we've just become really good contacts now.

And funnily enough this in the last couple of weeks, we've been sharing a lot of ideas about successes that we've had. And now this is nearly three years now since we started, actually, and we're still sharing information about what we've done, challenges we've had, getting input from, I don't know, 20 odd people, maybe 25 that are still on the WhatsApp group, all senior leaders.

It's absolutely brilliant. One of the best things I've done in the last decade, I'd say.

Henry: And I, and I didn't even ask you to say that, did I Jason?

Okay. So If you're interested in that program, type yes into the chat. So if you're interested in either the new managers, level 3, the experienced managers, level 5, and the level 7 senior leaders which I like to call the Happy MBA. So do type into the chat. Yes. If you want, if you're want to be involved in, in that. 

And we also have, you know, that's, that's only based in England, the apprenticeships. So we have also a four day programme based over three months. Which, is based on very much based on everything we talk about here – culture of trust and freedom, that kind of thing.

Any questions? Any questions that people have to ask want to ask?

Sue: My name's Sue and thanks for this morning so far, Henry. In the exercise that we just did in the breakout room, we were talking about there are some processes that you might not give to people because of the risk, and risk not maybe financial, but if you were working in terms of the risk with vulnerable adults or something of that nature. So I guess, do you have any tips, any ideas, any strategies around risk and managing and how to kind of come to that decision in terms of what can be [possible], where we can give trust with parameters? 

Henry: Okay. Well, the key question is if you trust your people.

Okay. Do you trust your people? Because, because I gave the example of Helen Taylor from Hanslow who was very definitely working with adults with mental health, autism, learning disabilities, those kinds of things. And she was able to trust her people up to £100k. So the question is whether you trust your people, and if you don't trust your people, put them on training courses and enable them to learn that kind of thing.

So that's the key question I would say.

Sue: Okay. Brilliant. Thank you. 

Henry: Okay. Any more? Any more?

No?  Nobody got any questions on Pre-Approval, on trust, on any of that kind of thing. 

Anneke: Go on then, go on. So if you're in the position where, and this has happened to me previously in other jobs, you don't get Pre-Approval for anything and you're working for someone who, you know, just doesn't work that way.

What tips do you have on how to challenge that, especially when it's not a psychologically safe environment? 

Henry: Ouch. Okay. Well I would say, I would say explain to your manager what you need, how you like to work. Explain that Pre-Approval is the way that you work. And if they don’t respond to that, then maybe you should leave.

Anneke: Which is what I did.

Henry: It’s a toxic environment. Yeah.

Henry: But definitely talk to your manager, explain to them, say this is how I like to work.

Any other thoughts? 

Joao: May I, may I step in? Yeah.

Henry: Yep.

Joao: I've recently read that book that you mentioned on Netflix. And one of the nice things that I found about the book is that they distinguish between companies in which creativity is important and innovation and others where safety is important.

And so he did. Okay. If you're into innovation, then freedom, et cetera, et cetera, trust, et cetera, et cetera.

But if you are, for example, in a business where safety is paramount, where you have to avoid risks, then maybe then rules and processes are the way to go. So it's kind of a contingence. A contingency decision which depends on many things, on the people, as you've just said, but it also depends on the context. Any comment on that?

Henry: Yes. But I would say that that even in a case where risk is the case I would say that you should still be able to trust your people. As I say, it's freedom within guidelines.  And if the policies are the guidelines, then that's what's involved.

Yeah. But it's freedom within guidelines. It's not complete freedom. It's freedom within guidelines, I would say.

Joao: Yeah.

Olivia: Can I add something, Henry, because I was showing in the breakout room that I was in, that I don't know if anyone's read the book Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet, who talks a lot about giving your team control, which is part of the Pre-Approval. And he talks about the need for competence and clarity alongside control. And so you tune the level of control or the level of Pre-Approval to the level of competence and also ensuring that the organisational outcomes or the team outcomes are met, that these are really clear so that people are making good decisions about what they're approving. But it can't just be controlled. He talks about the need for clarity and competence alongside that.

Henry: Absolutely. And that is a U.S. Navy submarine which is very definitely potentially at risk.

And what David Marquet explained was that he, instead of telling 135 people what to do, he got 135 people to tell him what to do. Partly because he'd previously been with a different submarine, and he wasn't able to do the work on this submarine. So yeah, that's very definitely a risky environment.

So there's some questions here. Katie Baggott, being new to an organisation, how do you introduce the notion of Pre-Approval to those in leadership roles? 20+ years, tell us more.

Katy: Gosh, I don't really know how much more I can tell you other than it's a long-standing giant organisation with multiple levels of approval.

Most of the senior leaders, the senior leadership team, have been in role 15 years or more. My role is leading on people development. It's a brand-new role to the organisation. It's never existed before. And I'd love to introduce the notion of Pre-Approval to them, but it feels at the moment, I wouldn't even know where to begin in how to even introduce that idea to them.

It's an interesting dynamic because it's a traditional organisation. It started very small when. Everybody had joint approval on everything, and it's more than doubled in size in the last two years. And so it's introducing new ways of working and different levels of approval.

As a charity as well, we have councils and committees, steering groups, advisory groups, as well for lots of different levels of approval. So yeah, how, where do I even begin to approach that notion with them?

Henry: Okay. Well, we had one hierarchical public sector organisation and the individuals got together as a group, and decided to ensure that there was Pre-Approval. And if you can get together some people and as a group of people and then encourage more people and on that in that public sector organisation. We actually ended up doing quite a lot of work for them.

And yeah, you could also bring me in, I'm happy to come in for free to work, to work with senior leaders. You could share a copy of my book, The Happy Manifesto, with them. There might be some people who would enable that?

Are you suggesting a rebellion?  Yeah, possibly, yes. Yes. I would suggest it.

Not necessarily rebelling, but actually getting people together to think about how to enable stuff to work in that organisation.

So I would say, say do that.

Um, Emma, we have team meetings that are quite brief where the team raise any blockers or tasks, assistance with. Okay, so that's enabling trust, Emma, is that right?

Emma, are you there?

Miranda, any thoughts on the Post Office's mistakes? Miranda, tell us more about that?

Miranda: The more I hear about it, the more it strikes me that this massive failure of anyone either having responsibility or… I don't know, I just wondered whether you thought what you're talking about here would have been relevant in that organisation. I know nothing about it.

Henry: Well, yeah, I think it would have definitely been relevant.

I mean, with the Post Office, there was an absolute cover up of everything, you know, so if you had a level of trust – if you trusted the Postmasters and Postmistresses, it would have been great. And yes, I’ll be talking about this more in the celebrate mistakes thing in a couple of weeks’ time.

So any other thoughts, any other thoughts on that?

The standard work that guides the Pre-Approval of tasks, the safety element, the best sides. You’re right Michelle, that is a level of trust.

Michelle: Yeah, so one of the things that I do, is I do some return to work meetings and the Pre-Approval from my side is to use my judgment that they don't need that to go anywhere else.

So we've got a standard work that, that gives me the guidance. So I'll do the meeting and then I'll sign that off, but then if there was something that came from it, then I would, you know, have to raise it, but that's how our Pre-Approval works.

Henry: Excellent. Okay. So I'm going to be doing this for this every Wednesday at nine o'clock for 13 weeks.

Next week will be psychological safety. The week after will be coaching and the week after that will be celebrating mistakes. So, if you want to come, check it out. It's all free and come along to it. And I'll, I'll send you an email afterwards with some ideas on Pre-Approval and some other elements.

If anybody's got any more questions, then feel free to ask them, but let’s go to our work.

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In this video, you will learn from Henry Stewart how you can create a workplace culture based on trust by using Pre-Approval.

Pre-Approval is the system of approving a solution to a problem, before you know what the solution is. You give clear guidelines, such as budget and shareholders that need to be consulted, and then let your people come up with the solution. Whatever they come up with is what is used going forward.

For example, at Happy's previous training centre, a 19-year-old was managing the café area, where our learners have their breaks and lunch while on a course. She wanted to make improvements to the space, making it more welcoming to visitors. She was given a budget, given information on Happy's values, and told she could do whatever she thought was best. The first time that Henry saw these changes was in the morning when he arrived at the centre.

Pre-Approval is covered in more detail on Happy’s leadership programmes and our apprenticeship programmes.

"It's the best money I've never spent," says Jason Mitchell of the Level 7 Senior Leadership Programme. "It really is a phenomenal programme. The tuition and the sessions with Happy are exceptional, really strong, really make you rethink and challenge your management style and how you can improve... One of the best things I’ve done in the last decade, I’d say."

In this 30-minute video, Henry gives more examples from Happy and from Netflix about how Pre-Approval has been used in practice. He also hears from people attending and how Pre-Approval could work in their organisation, and what the barriers are to using it.

If you are a manager, what could you Pre-Approve? Or if you're an individual (without direct reports), what could you be Pre-Approved for?

Related resources

Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

More by Henry

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