Dealing with the Honest Majority and the Dishonest Minority: Tales from the auto industry

This is a guest-post by Matti Kurvinen, a former Accenture partner, now an independent consultant focusing on service strategy and operations and warranty management. We welcome him to Trust Matters.

This blog has recently addressed what to do when someone abuses your trust. Of course, most of our business partners are fully honest and trustworthy. Still, if you don’t know which one is which – how can you trust your partners?

The issue is not hard to frame for individuals. But what about at scale? How can you establish systemic trust-based business relationships, when you can’t directly assess the trustworthiness of every relationship at all times?

The Case of Automotive Warranty Service

A case in point is manufacturers who outsource their warranty service to external service agents – for example, automotive dealers. An automotive OEM rightfully sees dealer productivity as a key route to effective end-customer service, and dealer satisfaction as a route to end-customer satisfaction. As the OEMs put it, “It is our role to support our dealers in serving our customers and not burden them with unnecessary controls.” (The same applies to white goods, IT, mobile devices and consumer electronics in relation with their authorized service vendors).

The problem is, an OEM with thousands of service agents globally will quite likely have tens – maybe even hundreds – who will take advantage of any holes the OEM has in its warranty control.

Hence the dilemma: how to enforce trust, positive incentives, support and frictionless procedures with the honest majority of your business partners, while at the same time having adequate control and discipline to deal with the few dishonest exceptions?

The Ugly Truth about Warranty Fraud

Warranty cost is a significant factor for manufacturing companies, typically ranging from 1 to 4 % of company sales, and 5 to 25 % of company profits (sometimes enough to make the difference between profit and loss).

Most companies see warranty costs as driven mainly by product quality, and secondarily by service network efficiency. However, there is another factor to be considered  – warranty fraud. This kind of fraud ranges from opportunistic small-scale overbilling to industrial-scale fraud perpetrated by organized crime. Estimates suggest that from 3 to 15% of warranty billing is fraudulent, making it a billion-dollar issue in the USA alone.

The warranty chain is no different from any other field of life or business. For some small fraction of people and companies, the opportunity for financial gain, weighed against the likelihood and consequences of getting caught, is a calculus that leads them to take advantage of loopholes in warranty control.

Some companies take this very seriously; others are not even aware of it. Still others believe it may be an issue, but “not for us.”  Stanford professor and trust scholar Roderick Kramer states in his HBR Article Rethinking Trust: “… people underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to them, and detecting the cheaters among us is not as easy as one might think.”

I have witnessed this several times, with comments like, ”Yes, the numbers from this dealer look really peculiar – but I can’t just go and accuse them of being dishonest, now, can I?”

Most participants in the warranty chain are honest – but not all

The good news is that most participants in the warranty service chain are normal, honest people and companies. But this makes fraud control tricky; how to have control and discipline for the dishonest minority, while enhancing trust, positive incentives, support and frictionless procedures with the honest majority?

The same issue, of course, can be found in many other areas: think on-line commerce, credit cards, mobile payments. The challenge is to make processes fast and easy for the honest people, yet still have adequate controls and fraud prevention processes.

Both false positives and negatives are undesirable. It’s inconvenient to have your credit card refused because of a false alarm. But it’s at least as troublesome to see payments go through with stolen credit cards or identities.

Enforcing trust while managing the dishonest minority

In my experience, there is no single silver-bullet solution. However, by applying the following five principles to your business, you’ll improve the odds considerably.

  1. Trust your partners by default. The business relationship between the OEM and the service agent must be based on mutual trust. The OEM assumes that the service agent doesn’t do warranty fraud, and the OEM accepts that the service agent is entitled to earn a share of the profits for serving the end-customer. The alternative – a default assumption that the service agents are dishonest – is corrosive of all trust. Even good service agents can turn bad if you consistently suspect them of being so.
  2. Set a culture and expectation of high integrity and honest work. This should be enforced and communicated upfront – along with clear consequences of breaking the rules.

Some of our clients have been puzzled when catching fraudulent vendors – “What do we do now?” One leading automotive OEM sends a very clear message to their dealers: “We trust you, but if you violate that trust, you are out!”

This is consistent with Kramer’s advice of sending strong signals on willingness to trust others, coupled with strong promises to strike back if that trust is abused. This not only attracts other desirable trusters, but also deters potential predators, who can sniff out easy victims who send out weak and inconsistent cues.

  1. Keep core operations simple and effective. In daily operations and service vendor management activities there should be no excessive control points; the focus should be on smooth operations and minimal administrative burden for the service agent. You trust the service agent enough to let them be the interface with your end-customer – let that trust also be visible in the back-office, and help them to serve customers with maximal productivity.
  2. Use analytics and audits to support warranty control and rule-based claim validation. Use extensive analytics to detect service agents with suspicious or fraudulent behavior. But analytics alone are not enough; they should be augmented by regular operational reviews and more detailed audits – executed randomly, or as a follow-up based on the analytics findings.

It’s important to keep the human touch and judgment alongside the analytics. Beware of taking drastic actions before you are sure of the findings, and don’t settle for anomalies or suspicious cases where you don’t understand the underlying reasons. 

  1. When necessary, take determined action. Occasional sloppiness and over-charging is best dealt with directly with the service agent, with a clear expectation of corrective actions. In the case if direct fraud or several suspicious elements, take determined action according to the upfront stated policies, such as:
    • Enforcing tighter process controls. You might require additional process control points from service agents with suspicious cases or too many cases in the gray area. Be very clear about this.
    • Claiming back the over-charges. Typically, it is easier to prevent over-charges than claim them back. The circumstances and time-frames for that should be stated in the service contract.
    • Do you still feel you can trust your business partner in the future? What are your other options for warranty (and non-warranty) service? Consider having a case for contract termination or even going to court.
    • Companies are often reluctant to let others know they’ve been a victim of fraud. However, communicating the issue and the consequences enforces the message that your control processes work and you don’t tolerate wrongful behavior.

In many cases we hear clients say, “We don’t have warranty fraud, we know our service agents and we trust them,” or “We are the market leaders, our dealers don’t have the guts to cheat us.” Still, we have seen the whole spectrum from occasional sloppy procedures and over-charging to systemic criminal activities and truly large-scale fraud.

Those who dismiss this as a non-issue typically have a very expensive issue about which they are just wishfully ignorant. Those who have a clear approach without overly burdening their service agents can save a lot of money and simultaneously have a more satisfied and effective service network.

 

Don’t Focus Just on Skillsets

It’s become a truism: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. (Actually, it’s quite a debatable proposition.) A corollary is that therefore what matters are observable behaviors, hence the essence of training is to develop skills that generate those behaviors. We’ve all seen, in the opening page of nearly every corporate training session’s objectives statement, “Participants will learn the skills associated with the behaviors of…”

But focusing on skills alone produces dangerously myopic results.  Let me use a sports analogy here – let’s go with golf.

Whether you’re stroking a 3-foot putt or hitting a long drive, two kinds of things can go wrong:

  • You may do something incorrectly, e.g. swing in a bad plane or aim the club face wrong. This will result in the ball going other than where you intended.
  • You may think incorrectly, e.g. correct some last-minute perceived error or try to set a course record. This too will result in the ball going other than where you intended.

If the results are the same, which error do you fix? Does it matter? Remember that mental errors manifest in physical ways. A desire to “kill the ball” may result in swinging in a wrong plane. Worrying about missing the putt is likely to cause you to over-control and flinch, thus aiming the club face wrongly at point of impact.

Fixing the “doing” is improving our skillsets. It includes things such as altering the grip or moving the ball forward in our stance. Fixing the “thinking” is improving our mindsets. It includes advice such as “swing through the ball” or “trust your swing.”

Mindsets and Skillsets

The metaphor for sales is clear, I hope, though it applies equally to other fields of advisory business relationships. Sometimes we do or say the wrong thing. More typically, we don’t do or say the right thing. But how do we know which issue-set to focus on in sales? Does the golf metaphor give us guidance, or does it just help define the problem?

It’s been my experience that when it comes to sales – here comes a gross generalization – we put too much emphasis on skillsets and not enough on mindsets. A couple of qualifications: my experience is mainly built around B2B sales, with a heavy focus on complex and/or intangible products or services, and a concentration in professional services. So, I have my biases, just to be clear, in what follows.

We Live In a Skillset World

In the Western world of business, the sub-world of sales has not been immune to some larger trends. Those include, first and foremost, a recent massive trend toward quantification.

Cloud computing is relatively new. iPhones are only 10 years old. Computer laptops are only a few decades old. The web didn’t exist before the 90s. The spreadsheet was invented only in the late 70s. And the 1981 IBM PC had one (big) floppy disc that held 64K (another optional drive doubled capacity all the way to 128K).

Two other phenomena are worth mentioning: the creation of Michael Hammer’s Business Process Re-engineering strategy and the invention (courtesy of the Boston Consulting Group and Michael Porter) of the quantitative approach to competitive strategy.

These big three—computing power, process perspective, and competitive calculation—changed the way business is done. In a nutshell, we began hearing that mantra about “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and “You get what you measure.” Business began to view organizations as processes, not hierarchies, with all the data that come with processes (not to mentions manuals and procedures). All this happened within recent times for Gen X managers (but feels ancient to millennials).

Sales Skillsets

These trends greatly influenced (led to?) CRM systems. Sales trainers (influenced by behaviorally trained organization trainers) began to phrase training in terms of measurable behaviors. And after all, isn’t sales the ultimately quantifiable function?

In a skillset world, two assumptions keep popping up: one is a linear approach to cause and effect, and the other is a belief in breaking things down into pieces. The first belief views sales as “a sale, repeated over and over.” You’ve all seen depictions of sales processes, typically rightward-moving arrow diagrams. They all boil down to, “If you do X, you’ll get Y.”

The second assumption is that we gain greater control over a process by breaking it down into finer and finer pieces. This assumption has been greatly enabled by the availability of data. (It’s also been only a few years since the word “analytic” was turned from an adjective to a plural noun).

Sales Mindsets

Of course, with data and behavioral skillsets come many advantages. But there are two advantages to focusing more on mindsets.

First is that the more complex the situation, the more difficult it is to map out all the appropriate skillsets. A level of generalization, an ability to deduce specifics from the general, allows not only more customization, but more speed. With skillsets alone, all we can generate is practiced behavior. With mindsets, we gain the ability to improvise.

Put another way – mindset scales; skillsets don’t.

The second benefit of mindsets is that the more human the buyer, the less likely they are to respond to mechanistic behaviors (or the perception thereof). Sometimes we just want to interact with a chatbot, and we want it to just plain work. But other times, we want to interact with a human. And when we do, we want the person to do more than just recite rules, try to manipulate us, or emulate a robot.

Mindsets don’t guarantee behavior. No golfer ever succeeded by simply envisioning a swing and never practicing.

But if all you do is increase your repertoire of behaviors, your customers won’t be able to tell you from an automaton. The really effective salespeople have internalized mindsets, and they can generate the appropriate behaviors “on demand.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trust is Down? Wait – What Does That Even Mean?

Today, it seems nine out of ten stories in the general media are variations on one theme: trust is down. Whether it’s trust in the media, trust in politics, trust in business – it all seems to be heading in one direction.

But wait – what does that even mean?

We hear it all the time. Trust in banking is down. Trust in Congress is down. Trust in the educational system is down. We hear these statements, we say, ‘tut-tut what’s the world coming to,’ and we go on about our business – in large part, because we don’t know what to do about them.

Well, no wonder.  These seemingly obvious statements mask a fundamental confusion about the nature of trust – a confusion that prevents us coming up with basic solutions.

The problem is this. When trust in banking is down, does that mean:

a. that banks are less trustworthy than they used to be?  Or,

b. that people are less inclined to trust than they used to be?

Those are very different problems. Typical solutions to the problem of trustworthiness have to do with ensuring the behavior of the trustee.  Think regulations, penalties, enforcement, behavioral incentives and the like.

We too often neglect the other side of the equation – the propensity to trust. The problem is simple enough to state: you may be the most trustworthy partner in the world, but if the other party is unwilling to trust you, nothing will happen.

The propensity to trust is critical. It amounts to risk taking. Despite Ronald Reagan’s famous quote to the contrary, there is no trust without risk. The dictum to “trust but verify” in fact destroys trust by sanctioning acting on suspicion.

The Hitchhiking Problem

In the 60s, hitch-hiking flourished. By the late 1980s, it was dead.  Partly, hitchhikers were afraid to hitch; but mainly, drivers were afraid of hitchhikers. And it wasn’t due to an epidemic of violence; it was due to a fear of violence.  We lost a great deal when we lost hitchhiking – economically and culturally.  (The move to collaborative consumption, interestingly, is a contemporary resurrection of that idea).

Why is hitchhiking relevant to trust in banking?  Because one common response to low trustworthiness – perceived or otherwise – is a reduced propensity to trust. Which will kill trust just as surely as will low trustworthiness.

There is a huge cost to low propensity to trust; look at The Cost of Fearing Strangers by the Freakonomics folks. We are great at articulating the risk of doing something; we are awful at noticing the cost of doing nothing.

Want a really Big Example? Next time you’re in an airport, look at the social cost of us not being able to trust grandmothers from Des Moines on their flight to Fargo.

The Laws of Trust

To people schooled in free-market economics ways of thinking, trust is hard to make sense of. If the propensity to trust declines, you’d think the market would respond by creating more trustworthy offerings. In fact, just the opposite happens. Suspicious people tend to attract con artists; skeptics get sucked in by fakes.

The reason is simple: trust is not a market transaction, it’s a human transaction. People don’t work by supply and demand, they work by karmic reciprocity. In markets, if I trust you, I’m a sucker and you take advantage of me. In relationships, if I trust you, you trust me, and we get along. We live up or down to others expectations of us.

We have been teaching and practicing business according to the wrong Laws of Trust. The solution for low trustworthiness is not necessarily to trust less, but to trust more, and more intelligently. Maybe you’ve heard, “The best way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.”

We’re Teaching the Wrong Laws

Our public education and culture is loaded with the free-market versions of trust. We teach, “If you’re not careful they will screw you.” We passcode-protect everything. We are taught to suspect the worst of everyone, be wary of every open bottle of soda, watch out for ingredients on any box.

Then in business school, we are taught that if customers don’t trust you, you need to convince them you are trustworthy – partly by insisting on our trustworthiness.  You can’t protest enough for that to work: in fact, guess the Two Most Trust-Destroying Words You Can Say.

By teaching distrust and confusing trust recovery with messaging, we are teaching entire generations to be suspicious of anyone and everything. By teaching suspicion and distrust, you can make book on it: what we’ll get is a reduction in trustworthiness. Read the Tale of the Thieving Convenience Store Managers.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach trustworthiness; much of my career has been built heavily around that. But by itself it’s not enough.

We need also to be teaching risk-taking, relationships, and the values of being connected to other human beings –not just than calibrating the dangers of hitchhiking.

Don’t tell me there’s no data.  The General Social Survey has been collecting data on the propensity to trust since 1972. One interesting finding: the propensity to trust is strongly correlated with educational attainment.  What does that say about the social and economic costs of cutting educational investment in the name of lowering taxes?

And don’t tell me I’m naive. I recall a trip to Denmark a few years ago. I left my wallet in a taxi. By the time I discovered it, my client had left me a message to say the taxi driver had returned it to their offices, and they’d paid him to bring it to my hotel. Which he did.

I expressed amazement at how well it had all worked out. My client said, “Nothing to be surprised at. Anything less would have been surprising.”

And I bet the Danes hitch, too.

The Semantics and Study of Trust

This post isn’t quite as wonky as the title would suggest. Bear with me.

Most of us would agree that ‘trust’ is a complex concept. But few of us, I suggest, have any idea how sloppily we think about it.

The Semantics of Trust

Consider some obvious grammatical usages of ’trust’:

  • Trust as a verb, as in “I trust James.”
  • Trust as an adjective, as in “James is less trustworthy than Jane.”
  • Trust as a noun, as in “trust is less common in Russia than in Denmark.”

Now ask yourself: what is the meaning of the sentence, “Trust in banking is down”?

Does it mean:

  1. that people are less inclined to trust banks these days? or
  2. that banks have become less trustworthy than they used to be? or
  3. that the customer-bank relationship is less based on trust than it used to be?

Why is that important? Because if you don’t know what problem you’re trying to solve, you’re just going to spin your wheels.

Is that a real issue? You betcha. It goes to whether we need more bank regulation, better bank PR, or a rebirth of spiritual values.

For an analogy, consider the fact that serious crime in the US has been declining for about two decades – and the mistaken belief held by majorities that it has actually been rising.  That’s a PR problem.

Now consider that Wells Fargo consistently and consciously incented its employees to sell unnecessary products for years. That’s a trustworthiness problem.

In the aforementioned link, from the Edelman Trust Barometer, you can find hints of all three meanings.  Which suggests, first of all – we have a semantic problem. What the heck does Edelman mean by ‘trust’?  Because if that answer isn’t clear, then how can we meaningfully talk about how to create trust (by smarter consumer risk-taking? by better regulation? by broader social change?).

Biases of Trust Researchers

Psychologists who study trust are, as a group, fixated on trust-the-verb. This is hardly surprising; their view of the world is from an interior perspective, the mind looking out, hence on issues of perception.  They focus on the decision to trust, and thus on the attitudes toward risk-aversion and risk-seeking. Trustworthiness as an adjective is dealt with as an issue of perception by the trustor, not as an attribute of the trustee – trustworthiness is all in the eye of the beholder.

Sociologists are concerned with trust the noun, and with questions like why southern Italy is a lower-trust society than Sweden. When they say ‘trust is down,’ they are talking about the  likelihood of a surveyed population to have a more suspicious outlook on strangers than they used to. They’re interested in herd behavior, not in the perceptions of individual cattle.

Business writers on trust are the most confusing of all.  They pay about as much attention to trust-as-adjective (trustworthiness) as they do to to trust-the-noun. Unlike the academics, however, business writers use the word ‘trust’ to refer to institutions, as opposed to most academic talk (and most talk on Twitter, for that matter), which is about interpersonal trust.

Unfortunately, business writers are often unclear about the distinction (if banks are untrustworthy, is this because bankers are venal, or because ’the system’ is amoral? And is my trusting JPMorgan Chase really not qualitatively different from my trusting Susie?).

Definitions: A Simple Trust Ecosystem

Here’s a simple, five-factor description of the trust ‘ecosystem.’

Trust (1. the noun) is a relationship, between a trustor who trusts (2. the verb) and a trustee, who is or is not trustworthy (3. the adjective). The trustor initiates the relationship by taking a risk (4. the driver of trust); and continues when the roles reciprocate (5. the sustainment of trust).

At the risk of grammatically complexifying what isn’t all that complicated in practice: trust is an asynchronous bilateral relationship initiated by risk-taking and sustained by reciprocation.

If all who wrote about trust simply referred to these five factors, and were clear about what meaning they intended, the trust literature would be much clearer, and recommendations more cogent.

 

 

 

Technology Transformation vs. Trust

Is technology killing trust in your organization? Are we heading for a dehumanized, low-trust business world?  Can technology itself come up with trust-enhancing ways to guard against this trend?

I’m getting asked these questions lately. And while there’s some merit to the question as framed, the news is not nearly as bad as it sounds – provided we remember a few basics.

The Technological Threat to Trust

Think of your own business – how is it being affected by:

  • Social collaboration
  • Big data/analytics
  • Mobility
  • The cloud
  • CRM
  • Process automation
  • Robotics
  • Internet of Things
  • 3d Printing
  • Cognitive systems
  • Blockchain
  • Digital wallets
  • P2P lending
  • Crowdfunding
  • RoboPlanning

Since trust is largely personal – so the logic goes – and the thrust of most of those technologies is to reduce the human connection, if not eliminate it entirely, then we must be heading into a dangerously low-trust future.

  • How can you trust a robo-planner the way you trusted a CFP?  Alternatively, maybe the robo-planner is actually more trustworthy?
  • How can you establish customer relationships when the customer has walked themself through half the buying process online without speaking to anyone? And what if the customer no longer wants those relationships?
  • What happens to trust when my firm automates a process? Doesn’t going from trusting a person to trusting a process create an inherent reduction in trust?

What We Forget

In this way of framing the problem, we forget two major offsetting benefits of technology – each a significant cause for optimism.

The Tradeoff.

The most obvious is that there is trust, and there is trust. In particular, there is “soft” and “hard” trust. These correspond to the Trust Equation components as follows:

“Soft trust” — Intimacy and Self-Orientation

“Hard trust” — Credibility and Reliability

In many of the technologies we talk about, there is a direct trust trade-off. What we lose in human contact, we often gain in reliability (in particular). It wasn’t that long ago that people stood in lines to get cash from their checking accounts. You had to walk a distance; banking hours were restricted; and you never knew how long the lines would be.

Would anyone – bank or customer – ever want to give back the freedom that ATMs gave us? In trading off the polite chit-chat with your friendly neighborhood teller, you got reliable convenience, reliably availability, (pretty) short lines, and reliable accuracy.  A net plus.

Such is often the case with automation, CRM, the cloud, and other technologies. What we lose in one part of trust, we gain with another.

The Multi-part Solution.

The least obvious offsetting benefit is that all the technologies above have not affected by one iota the basic biology of humans. We still are complex,  non-linear, and emotionally-driven in our fundamental approach to people, risks, relationships, and business. Neither Steve Jobs nor Stephen Hawking have come anywhere near close to rewiring humans.

And humans have always resisted purely logical reasoning. Whether you prefer the observations of Daniel Kahnemann or of StarTrek’s Dr. Spock, we like to make decisions based on emotion – then rationalize them after the fact with linear logic.

–We buy with the heart, and justify it with the brain.

–We don’t care what people know until we know that they care.

–The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.

What does this mean for the technology v. trust conundrum? Plenty. It means that it’s impossible to engineer out all “soft” trust in most situations – we humanly resist it.  And if we have less of an opportunity for ‘soft trust’ creation, then the entire weight of the soft trust creation will rest on the few remaining opportunities for interaction.

In other words – fewer trust opportunities does NOT mean lower trust – it means more trust weight and emphasis being placed on fewer personal interactions. The trust-importance of those interactions is actually increased, not decreased.

Trust Design Implications

What’s to be done? There are two false solutions, and two better ones.

  1. The technical temptation. It’s tempting to ask technology to solve its own problem, but it’s nearly always the wrong answer. More metrics won’t help if your values are wrong (see Fargo, Wells). Customer sat surveys are as bloodless as the technologies they’re deployed to measure. And no matter our Hals, Siris, and Alexas, we know they’re not ‘soft,’ they’re just software. You can’t get intimate with an avatar (yet, anyway).
  1. The specialist temptation. Similarly, it’s tempting to view technologists as hopeless cases, and to bring in a special squad (group, team, unit) whose job it is to do trust. Wrong: you’re far better off training technologists to get a little better at trust than you are training poetry majors to talk to technology clients. Anyway, you can’t fix a technologist’s low trust by pointing to someone else’s high trust.
  1. The transparency solution. However, technology can help in two particular ways. One is simply to leverage the informational power of technology, and move radically in the direction of transparency.

The reason is simple. A big component of people’s trust is whether they think you have something to hide. That is true at the personal and the institutional level. If we sense that the person, process or organization has no axe to grind, no hidden agendas, and no secrets, then we are inclined to trust them.

This kind of transparency is evident even before we meet someone – in our website designs, in our employee and customer policies, in our public responses.  In an evolving world, when we start by assuming confidentiality, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The right beginning question is “Why shouldn’t we be sharing this?”

  1. The design solution. A technical world is one in which users have power. Users include employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors. Most cases are not like the ATM, where zero contact is required. In most cases, some contact is required.  The key is to give the participant maximum power over the timing and nature of that contact.

In a sales process, this means make everything feasible available without personal contact – eg. online. Then, when the customer gets to the inevitable point where they actually need, and want, a real-person interaction, make that interaction available:

  1. immediately (e.g. within a click for text support, two rings if phone)
  2. with high quality (i.e. a qualified, unscripted support person authorized to talk.

Digitization is not immutably opposed to trust – we’re just not thinking about it rightly. The challenge is for us to get better at trust in the remaining interpersonal situations, and to design the non-personal interactions in ways that respect our analog nature.

 

 

 

How Smart People Get Stupid

Exhibit A. Google conducted a multi-year, multi-million dollar study called Project Aristotle to determine just what distinguishes successful teams from unsuccessful ones. Tons of data were examined, decades of research studied, multiple hypotheses explored.

The answer? Drum roll: successful team members display more sensitivity toward their colleagues, e.g. granting them equal talk time.

THAT’S IT!

If you find that a stunningly unsurprising flash of the obvious, you don’t understand how things work in business these days. Here’s the reaction of one Googler to that study:

“‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention…I had research telling me that it was O.K. to follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The data helped me feel safe enough to do what I thought was right.’’

I’m not picking on Google; they are not unique. (And they are, indeed, really smart). But let me restate what Exhibit A is really telling us:

Millions of years of evolution have brought humans incredibly complex and exquisitely tuned neurological systems, capable of instantly intuiting not just friend vs. foe, but parsing a spectacularly wide array of emotional messages being sent out by our fellow humans.

Yet the smartest of the smart among us have determined that you can’t trust that system – unless it’s backed up by years of technological research that couldn’t have been done even just ten years ago.  Fortunately, we have now been given permission by that research to ‘trust your gut.’

It’s a wonder the human race stumbled along without that study for so many years.

 

Exhibit B. We recently got a plaintive email from a genuinely perplexed  client.

He said:

I hear constantly that being authentic is crucial. But it’s hard to get a clear grasp on the idea. It’s especially hard to figure out how I can know (instead of just feeling or believing) that I am authentic – much less know that someone else is.

Absent knowing we’re authentic, can’t anyone believing they’re authentic just claim to be so? How could anyone prove otherwise?  And since we can’t really know authenticity, doesn’t that also mean we can’t measure it, so we can’t compare it across people or time or situations?

Hasn’t someone come up with a way of getting at authenticity by way of knowing, rather than feeling or believing? I’m struggling to know how I can know I’m authentic. I hope this makes some sense.

This person’s pain is real, and deep; I don’t want to appear insensitive by citing it as a cautionary example, we can all relate to the sentiment. Yet, contrary to their hope, the query makes no good sense at all. Instead, it represents the abandonment of commonsense.

Authenticity – to pick that particular example – speaks to an alignment of beliefs and feelings with the cognitive functions that our writer called “knowing.”  When we run across someone who accesses solely their cognitive talents, we don’t think of them as authentic – we think of them as Sheldon Cooper. They are inauthentic because they are presenting not their full selves, but only their frontal cortexes to others.

“Authentic” is what we feel instantly in our pre- and sub-conscious instinctive feelings about other people. It is the same kind of feeling we get when we jump away from the speeding car, recoil at the sight of a snake, or feel our hearts tug when a puppy wags its tail at us.

An Outbreak of Reductionism

This is hardly the first outbreak of hyper-rationalization. In the social sciences it has a name – physics envy. It is particularly virulent today in neuroscience, where some, having locating certain emotions in particular areas of the brain, claim to have “explained” those emotions. Description is by far the narrowest form of explanation – it’s more akin to translation.

But the disease affects business as well. We have no trouble smiling at the naiveté of Frederick Taylor and his stopwatch, measuring people like machines. Yet we are every bit as mechanical and naive today.

Today, it is an article of faith in many of our most successful companies that “management” is a matter of decomposing goals into a series of cascading behaviors which, properly measured and carefully matched to incentives, produce an internally consistent, humming machine. All you need is a dashboard, which is easily available in the form of widgets.

The manifestation of this belief system (codified in “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”) is the enormous investment in training, goal-setting, reporting, progress discussion, and performance reviews – all of them non-direct value-adding processes.  All of them are built around a behavioral view of meaningfulness, a pyramid view of behaviors, and a system for metrics and incentives.

Every training department knows to use the Skinnerian language (“attendees will learn the behaviors associated with mastering the skills of XYZ…and will be rated regularly thereafter on a four-point scale of Early, Maturing, Mature, and Master.”)

Petrification by Metrification

This is precisely the technique used decades ago by Harold Geneen, who believed in rolling up data from all his subsidiaries and managing by the numbers. Except Geneen was measuring profit margins, inventory turns and capital costs. (And it turned out it was Geneen’s outsized personality, not his system, that made it work).

Today’s managers are applying the Geneen model to manage things like trust, authenticity, ethics and vulnerability – with the same tools they apply to measuring click-through rates. There is a huge mismatch. Entire organizations – and not just Left-coast tech companies – are being managed by cascading goals and KPIs, each firm with its own acronym for the process.

This continued reduction of higher order human functions to behavioral minutiae, coupled with the rats-and-cheese-in-the-maze approach to incentives, succeeds only in hollowing out those functions. Try this thought experiment: How do you incent unselfishness?

In the words of ex-consultant and CEO Jim McCurry, all this leads to “petrification by metrification.”  You don’t get the genuine article, but a fossilized replica. It may look real, but it’s checkbox stuff.

Scaling the Soft Skills

George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Ironically, the management teams who try to apply Big Data techniques to rich, basic human interactions are swimming upstream. The right way to scale soft skills and sensitivity not only looks different than the way you incent car  salespeople, but it’s a lot cheaper and faster. It has to do with leading with values, engineering conversations, and role-modeling.

But that’s fodder for another blogpost.

 

 

 

Four Principles of Organizational Trust: How to Make Your Company Trustworthy

Here’s a “Golden Oldie” post from 2011. Has anything changed in the passage of five years?

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iStock_000018524776XSmallTrust, in case you hadn’t noticed, has gotten “hot” lately. But much of it sounds very vague—soft, fluffy, nice-to-have, the buzzword du jour.

I’d like to do my part to make it real.

To me, that means breaking it down and making it sound; tapping into the strategy and mysticism, but also staying grounded in the tactical and the practical.

So let’s review some context; then talk about four specific operating principles a business can hone in on to improve its trustworthiness.

Putting Trust into a Workable Context

I’ve suggested elsewhere that “trust” is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm: are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?

The next question is about the trust role: are we working on being more trusting? Or more trustworthy? They are not the same thing.  And “trust” is the result of them both interacting.

Building a Trustworthy Business

In the realm “personal” and the role “trustworthy,” we can point to personal beliefs and behaviors as indicated in the Trust Quotient. But in business, trustworthiness is built through a set of daily operating principles. Trustworthiness is built from habitually behaving in accordance with a set of commonly shared beliefs about how to do business.

I suggest they can be boiled down to four.

The Four Trust Principles

1. A focus on the Other (client, customer, internal co-worker, boss, partner, subordinate) for the Other’s sake, not just as a means to one’s own ends.  We often hear “client-focus,” or “customer-centric.” But these are terms all-too-often framed in terms of economic benefit to the person trying to be trusted.

2. A collaborative approach to relationships.  Collaboration here means a willingness to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.

3. A medium to long term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus. Focus on relationships nurtures transactions; but focus on transactions chokes off relationships. The most profitable relationships for both parties are those where multiple transactions over time are assumed in the approach to each transaction.

4. A habit of being transparent in all one’s dealings.  Transparency has the great virtue of helping recall who said what to whom. It also increases credibility, and lowers self-orientation, by its willingness to keep no secrets.

Executing on the Trust Principles

What are the tools an organization has at its disposal to make itself more trustworthy? Any good change management consultant can rattle off the usual suspects, but for trustworthiness, the emphasis has to shift somewhat.

The usual change mantra includes a heavy dose of behaviors, metrics and incentives. Some of that works here, but only to a point.

For example, Principle 1, focus on the Other, is contradicted by too much extrinsic incentive aimed at leveraging self-interest–it undercuts focus on the Other.  And Principle 3, relationship over transaction, forces metrics and rewards to a far longer timeframe than most change efforts employ.

Another great shibboleth of change is that it must be led from the CEO’s office. But with trust, it ain’t necessarily so.  Trustworthiness is a great candidate for infectious disease change strategies; guerrilla trust strategies can work at the individual level, and individual players can lead. Behavior in accord with these principles cannot be coerced; the flipside is, it can be unilaterally engaged in.

The most powerful tools to create a trustworthy organization are things like language, recognition, story-telling, simply paying attention to the arenas where the principles apply—and the will to apply them.  Role-modeling helps; some skill-building helps.  But most of all, it is the willingness to notice the pervasive opportunities to work in accordance with this simple set of four principles.

Trustworthiness breeds trusting (the reverse is true too); the combination is what leads to trust. Which, by the way, is quite measurable in its impact on the bottom line.

Living Inside a Pariah Company

Doggie at Door Exile iStock_000042122536_smallLast week I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal has created tremors beyond even recent examples.

But in the days since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it be like to be an employee of VW in these difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it cause people – and what can they do?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book last year, tentatively titled “Working for the Pariahs: Can Good People Stop Organizations Going Bad?”  He send me an early draft outline last year, and I’m re-reading it again now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading. [Matt – when are you going to finish this book?]

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

I hope Matt finishes his book. It’s got some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for right now, I want to focus on what an individual at VW might be thinking about, what they can do, and what we can do to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seems a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”  This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.

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Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at the VW scandal/syndrome, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.

Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. The trouble is, if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.

Bloggers’ Top 10 Annoying Spelling Errors: Spellcheck Won’t Save You

You may be uneducated – but you needn’t advertise the fact.

Of course, we all understand typos – though the sight of them uncorrected on a blogpost suggests serious amateurism.

But what’s worse is a spelling error that is more than a spelling error – that belies a failure to understand the difference between two very different words. If you think you ever watched a Western movie that involved sending in the calvary, you are not only mistaken, you are flaunting your ignorance.

Spell-check will not help you here; these are words that have two very different meanings. If all you do is rely on spellcheckers, then all you’ll get is correctly-spelled indications that scream out loud you don’t know what you’re talking about.

You may not have graduated college – but why advertise the fact? And if you did – why make it look like you weren’t paying attention?

Study this list of examples I’ve encountered over the years – my Top Ten Most Annoying Spelling Mistakes. (Non-native English speakers get five free passes).

  1. Cavalry vs. Calvary. A cavalry is a group of horse-mounted soldiers. Calvary is the name of the hill on which Jesus was crucified. The only cavalry at Calvary that day was Roman.    
  2. Compliment vs. Complement. To compliment someone is to say something nice about them; a complement is something that goes well with something else. Being complimentary is a nice complement to a set of good manners.
  1. i.e. and e.g.  i.e. is short for the Latin “id est,” or “that is.” e.g. is short for the Latin “exempli gratia,” or “for example.”   “I’m from Missouri, i.e. show me,  e.g. by citing a few cases.”
  1. Memento and Momento. A memento is a piece of memorabilia. A momento is Spanish or Italian for the English word “moment.” Un momento, por favor, I just want to grab a memento of my last day in Madrid. 
  1. Chord and Cord. A chord is a harmonious set of intervals played at one moment; an idiomatic use is “struck a chord,” meaning ‘resonated with.’  A cord is a length of rope or string.  To make it more musically confusing, we all have vocal ‘cords’ – not chords.  That movie struck a chord with me, especially when the lead character yanked on the cord and proceeded to exercise his vocal cords at full strength. 
  1. Effect vs. Affect. Effect, the noun, is a result – to effect, as a verb, is to bring something about. To affect, the verb, is to influence something – affect, the noun, is a demeanor.  The effect of his affect was to change everything; he affected world politics, and thereby effected world change.  
  1. Pare and Pear and Pair. To pare is to strip something down to its essentials. A pear is a fruit you eat. To pair is to match up with another.  Would you please pare down that pear? I want to pair it with another pear that is already pared down considerably. 
  1. It’s and Its. “It’s” is a contraction for “It is.” Its is the possessive form of “it.”  It’s about time that cartoon rabbit got its own TV show. 
  1. Sight vs. Site. Sight is the ability to see, one of the five senses. Site is a location. He chose the new factory site on paper alone, sight unseen. 
  1. Reader’s Choice. What’s your nomination for number 10 on the list of most cringe-worthy spelling mistakes?  I’ll print all good answers, and the best three get a free copy of one of my books.