The Zombie Idea of Neuroscience in Business

A zombie idea is one that refuses to die, regardless of repeated efforts to kill  it off.  The idea that neuroscience explains trust and leadership in business is one such zombie. Authors like David Rock and Paul Zak have popularized the idea that we can “understand” themes like trust and leadership better through the wonders of neuroscience, e.g. through the “trust molecule” oxytocin and its effect on the brain.

I’ve personally tried to kill off this zombie – way back in 2007, again  in 2012, again in 2013. But I’m just a business author and blogger.

Ed Hong wrote a withering piece in The Atlantic on Paul  Zak. But The Atlantic can’t compare with night-time talk television: you’ve got to watch late night host John Oliver’s vicious take-down of Zak (skip to minute 10).

And yet – the zombie is back again.  This time, in the Harvard Business Review. In The Neuroscience of Trust Paul Zak states the case for Oxytocin as the causal agent of trust, and identifies eight “strategies” that derive from it.

Let’s be clear: this article is 95% nonsense, and an embarrassment to HBR. Yet understanding just why it is nonsense is very instructive, and not initially obvious – even to John Oliver.  The problem has little to do with neuroscience itself – but everything to do with the logic of explanation.

Zak and his ilk are creating philosophical zombies. The only successful stake through the heart (to mix the horror genre’s metaphors) will be philosophical, not scientific. Here we go.

The Zombie Claim

A typical claim of the genre about neuroscience and leadership is as follows:

For many years, the science of leadership was considered a “soft” science. While many experts in management and business understood the qualities that made a good leader and knew the activities that could help leaders become even stronger, they didn’t immediately recognize the important link between the “hard” science of neurobiology and the “soft” science of leadership.

In the HBR article, Mr Zak says that his neuroscience studies reveal eight “strategies” which “effectively create and manage a culture of trust.”

Zak says oxytocin “causes” trust. (Always be wary of claims of causality). His own lack of confidence in this conclusion is evidenced by the fact that not one of his eight “strategies” includes dosages of oxytocin in the workplace.

The truth is: It makes as much sense to say Oxytocin “causes” trust as it does to say molecules cause car crashes. And neuroscience doesn’t “explain” leadership or management any better than do stories, strategies or similes.

The Zombie Mistake(s)

Zak et al make two important errors of thinking.

The language  problem. Mr. Zak himself describes his research as aimed at answering “the most basic question: Why do two people trust each other in the first place?”  The answer, he claims, is to be found in the biochemistry of the brain – in particular the action of oxytocin.

He claims that the best explanation – the best answer to a “why” question – must come from a particular “language” of human interaction; in this case, the language of biochemistry.

On simple reflection, this is far from evident. Why should the language of biochemistry be better at “explaining” trust than the language of management? Or poetry? Or analogy by stories? Or standup comedy?

In fact, the claim that biochemistry is the best “language” of explanation is no more sensible than the claim that French is better than German.

Any phenomenon, including human emotions, can be explained in an infinite number of ways. If I raise my hand, am I a) contracting my upper arm muscles, b) initiating a handshake, or c) offering a social gesture?

The answer is all the above, and many more. Which descriptor feels better is not a function of the underlying phenomena, but of the realm of reality I’m trying to describe.

The test of a valid explanation is not to be found in the language used, but in the usefulness of that language for the case at hand.

  • If the case at hand is pharmacological, and the desire is to create new drugs, then biochemistry is indeed the right language to use. Neuroscience indeed has its place, and this is one example.
  • But if the case at hand is to understand and affect managerial behavior, then the use of chemical language adds virtually nothing. (See below for why Zak’s eight ’strategies’ fit this description).

The reductionist problem. The reductionist problem in philosophy is the belief that the continued dissection of problems into ever-finer constituent pieces will always lead to ever-more profound understanding and explanation.

If Joe appears angry at me, I might explain it by breaking it down into our past history, what happened to Joe this morning, and what I just said to him a moment ago. This might lead to a most constructive response – an empathetic inquiry, aimed at calming Joe and keeping me from a punch in the nose. So far, so good.

But breaking it down further – describing Joe’s blood type, the tension in his musculature, his level of serotonin, the grammatical structure of what I said to him – is not likely to either help Joe or prevent my face-punch. Yet reductionist thinking insists this is necessary to fully ‘explain’ what is going on, or to identify the ‘cause’ of the phenomenon in question.

Just as in the language claim, the real-world usefulness of a particular explanation is not a function of the depth of description used, but of the phenomenon requiring explanation.  To explain most management behavior, you simply don’t need to get to the level of biochemistry. You’re better off with commonsense language that describes human interactions.

The Commonsense Approach to Trust: Reciprocity. 

Mr Zak himself – in passing – quite correctly points out the fundamentally reciprocal nature of trust. One party takes a risk, and the other party then returns that trust – or not. This is indeed a critical observation about the dynamics of trust – it is a reciprocating relationship.

But it’s a commonsensical observation, almost definitional – it is something we know by life, not something we need neuroscience to prove for us.

This fundamental truth was famously stated by Henry L. Stimson: “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.” Ernest Hemingway said the same thing: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” It was well known to Abraham Lincoln (“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust,”) and to Warren Bennis (“Trust is the lubricant that makes it possible for organizations to work.”) Mr Zak himself cites Adam Smith as having said much the same.

Neither Stimson, Hemingway, Lincoln or Bennis required neuroscience to validly know whereof they spoke. Yet they clearly understood the fundamental nature of reciprocity to the functioning of trust.

Trust “strategies.” Here are the eight “strategies” or “management behaviors” (he uses both terms) that Zak identifies:

Recognize excellence; give people discretion; enable job crafting; share information broadly; intentionally build relationships; facilitate whole person growth; show vulnerability; and induce “challenge stress.”

Zak derived these strategies from experiments and surveys that analyze the production of oxytocin in various situations, and then ‘tested’ the impact of those trust-inducing behaviors on business performance.

One doesn’t need to question the validity of either his experiments or his ‘tests’ to ask a much simpler question: what does this language add to our understanding of trust in business, compared to other languages?

Now we might ask: if you wanted to list strategies of reciprocation to enhance trust, what might you do?  You might:

  1. recognize excellence, which probably results in appreciation and more excellence
  2. give people discretion in their jobs, and see if they reciprocate positively
  3. enable job crafting, to which people will reciprocate by improving performance
  4. share information broadly, which probably drives reciprocal behaviors of sharing and intelligent use of that information
  5. intentionally build relationships, which results in yet more relationship-building
  6. facilitate whole person growth, which probably results in gratitude and performance
  7. show vulnerability, to which people reciprocate by sharing their own vulnerabilities, creating more trust.

That is: seven of Zak’s eight strategies (all but “induce challenge stress”) follow self-evidently from a simple pragmatic definition of trust as a human process of reciprocation. Indeed, we can add a few that he might have missed, e.g. thanking people for favors done, or recognizing emotional states in others.

In other words: Zak’s “strategies” are commonsensical, and derived from basic principles of human interactions that even he recognizes. Neuroscience adds nothing to their understanding.

 

Let me be clear. I’m not challenging neuroscience itself. In certain spheres (like medicine or pharmacology), understanding the role of oxytocin and other chemicals in our brain and on our behavior is important, even vital. Biochemistry is the “right” language for such endeavors.

But for other fields – in particular, business – the language of biochemistry is like knitting with mittens on. It is worse than useless because it promises much and delivers little. Other languages are better suited and more productive to understanding the challenges of organizing, leading and managing groups of human beings.

And if you didn’t do it the first time, go back and watch John Oliver’s take on the same issue (he gets down to business at about minute 10:00).

Can we get rid of this zombie idea yet?

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.

 

 

 

Interview with Barbara Kimmel of Trust Across America – Trust Across the World

Today’s interview is with a significant player in the world of those who seek to improve trust in the business world – Barbara Kimmel. Barbara is CEO and co-founder of Trust Across America – Trust Across the World. She is also the co-creator of the proprietary FACTS® Framework – a unique methodology measuring the trustworthiness of public companies. We focus on FACTS in this interview.

Charlie Green: Barbara, welcome to Trust Matters, and thanks for sharing your insights with us. First, you founded Trust Across America – Trust Across the World. What is that, and what do you do?

Barbara Kimmel: Thanks for having me, Charlie. TAA-TAW’s mission is to help organizations build trust. We’re in our seventh year now. Our proprietary FACTS® Framework ranks and measures the trustworthiness of over 1500 of the largest US public companies on five quantitative indicators of trust. I also run the global Trust Alliance, am the editor of the award winning TRUST INC. book series and am a Managing Member at FACTS® Asset Management, a NJ registered investment advisor.

The FACTS Model

CG: OK, let’s get into FACTS®. Just what is it (and what do the letters stand for)?

BK: FACTS® is an acronym covering Financial Stability, Accounting Conservativeness, Corporate Governance, Transparency and Sustainability. This multi-factor framework was developed by a cross-silo multidisciplinary team in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. The Framework evolved by asking the same question of dozens of “siloized” professionals from leadership, compliance and ethics, legal, accounting, finance, HR, consulting, CSR, sustainability, etc. “What do you consider an indicator of corporate integrity or trust “worthiness” that can be independently and quantitatively measured without requiring the input of the organization itself? 

While every professional had a different perspective, the same indicators were repeatedly mentioned within each silo. The governance professionals pointed to board composition and compensation policies. Those in finance pointed to stable earnings, and so on. By blending these indicators of corporate trustworthiness into a spreadsheet, the first quantitative measure of organizational integrity and trust was created.

CG: How many metrics in total are subsumed in all those five major categories? And how did you weight the categories?

BK: In all there are approximately 200 specific distinct metrics. The five categories are equally weighted.

CG: Can you give me a current example of the model’s applicability?

BK: Corporate leaders who want to be proactive about building and communicating trust across all stakeholder categories, or who want to avoid the next crisis can use our data to discover their organizations’ strengths (and weaknesses). Because our data is holistic and does not rely on employee surveys or questionnaires, it makes glaringly apparent where and why the Wells Fargo and Enron-like “risk” often lays hidden in the 1500+ public companies evaluated on an annual basis.  A company might have a high score in 4 out of 5 FACTS indicators and a low score in the 5th. Digging further into our data allows us to identify the cause of the low score and often this is a red flag that should not be ignored by leadership.

Third parties including major consulting firms, investment managers and associations are also requesting information. After 7 years, the FACTS Framework continues to make a solid case for the elusive link between trustworthiness and profitability.

In 2008 The Economist published a briefing paper sponsored by Cisco, called “The Role of Trust in Business Collaboration” stating that “tens of millions of dollars had been spent evaluating corporate governance – but a definition of corporate trust continues to elude us.” We at Trust Across America took on that challenge. What if the most trust “worthy” companies could be identified? That’s what we set out to do.

What FACTS Says

CG: What does FACTS tell us?

BK: Now with seven years of unique and compelling data, FACTS® data tells us which companies are doing more than just “talking trust.” It also shows us high-risk companies that may be the next to make the news. The majority of companies and their leaders still think that integrity and trust are soft and immeasurable skills, and don’t consider integrating trust-related data from one corporate silo to the next.

Balancing long-term value creation against the need to “maximize earnings” and meet the always-looming quarterly numbers is hard work. Waiting until the next expensive corporate crisis will afford leadership the opportunity to talk about the importance of integrity and trust, and how measures will be implemented to safeguard against future missteps. Implementing measures to increase the organization’s level of trust before the crisis is a proactive business strategy requiring both a 21st century mindset and the right tools.

CG: What about the long-questioned link between Doing Good and Doing Well: does it exist? Are highly trustworthy companies more profitable, or more successful in general, than lower-trust-rated companies? Or is it just a soft fluffy wish?

BK: Good question Charlie. With over 7 years of data on the trustworthiness of 1500+ of the largest US public companies, and three years of audited performance against the S&P 500, evidence is mounting that the most trustworthy companies are in fact more profitable over the long-term, and certainly less likely to have a Wells Fargo like blow up. Our data reveals many similar patterns like CEO tenure, board diversity, a commitment to ethical business and all stakeholders, not just shareholders. You may call it Doing Good and Doing Well, we call it “Value with Values.”

Trust Research

CG: Where does FACTS fit in the scheme of trust research?

BK: I don’t know that it does “fit.” Much of the trust research appears to rely on qualitative surveys, not quantitative metrics.  We are unique in that regard.

CG: Well, let me toot your horn for you a bit. I don’t know of any other research that combines rigorous definitions, seriously vetted data, a breadth of subjects and a 7-year-plus timeframe anywhere near as much as does the FACTS data.

In what form do you make it available to researchers, companies or individuals today? How can people reach out to you?

BK: We share many free resources on our website including our findings from our FACTS research. The data itself is proprietary and available for licensing. http://trustacrossamerica.com/about.shtml

CG: What do you see as key issues facing trust in organizations today?

BK: At both the individual and organizational level, trust is not only a tangible asset but also serves as a tiebreaker in every relationship. In most organizations, leaders take this asset for granted, viewing it as a “soft” skill or ignoring it completely. The assumption is high trust simply “exists” at the individual, team and organizational level.

Yet when integrity and trust are considered tangible assets and a business imperative, the following results are achieved:

  • Decisions are made faster and less expensively
  • Employees are more engaged and retention increases
  • Innovation is higher and occurs more quickly
  • Profitability increases

Convincing leaders of this remains a key issue.

CG: Let me push on that. If merely convincing them is the problem, then the FACTS data ought to solve the problem. I suspect that’s not the whole deal, however. Some if also lies in not knowing what to do about it. Can you speak to that?

BK: There is no single “department” that “owns” trust in an organization, so it tends to be either overlooked or taken for granted until there is a crisis. Then lots of money is dumped into trying to “restore” via crisis communications something that never existed in the first place.

But I really do think the main issue isn’t knowing what to do – it is, as I said, convincing leaders that it’s a problem. How hard was it to see that a culture of “hard-selling” retail banking products to unsophisticated consumers at Wells Fargo was trust-destroying and unethical? This is not a problem of insight, metrics or technical sophistication; this was willful moral blindness.

Leadership needs to be proactive about building trust and they need to own it. Only if they, and perhaps regulators, begin to take it seriously will organizations become more trustworthy.

CG: Barbara, many thanks for your time today, and best wishes to Trust Across America – Trust Across the World.

 

 

Defining Trust

“…’tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Shakespeare, MacBeth

 

Note: This post comes out of ongoing discussions with Barbara Kimmel, CEO of of Trust Across America. She and I share a concern (as do many others) about how imprecision in speaking about trust hampers progress. It’s not an easy topic, but we both believe progress can be made. She’ll be writing about the subject soon as well.

—————–

  • “Trust in banking is down.”
  • “I don’t trust what car companies say – I trust someone like myself.”
  • “I trust Amazon, but not Google.”

We make statements like these every day in our casual conversations. We intend them to be – and believe them to be – meaningful. We think we’re saying something by uttering them.

And yet – each of those statements is confused, often to the point of meaninglessness. As Shakespeare would have put it, they are full of “sound and fury” –  while signifying very little.

The mistakes inherent in those statements are not just found in casual conversation. They are ubiquitous in the business and general press, and even, occasionally, in academic writings. The level of discussion about trust is fraught with definitional ambiguity pretty much everywhere.

Yet if we can’t talk meaningfully about trust, then we cannot possibly arrive at useful, justified conclusions for action. How can we create trust-based organizations? Cultures of trust? Increased trust in institutions? Have meaningful discussions about cross-generational trends in trust?

Without common definitions, we are reduced to bemoaning the fate of trust, wringing our hands as bystanders, accomplishing nothing. We need basic definitions.

This post doesn’t pretend to offer a comprehensive definition. But it does humbly attempt to provide three simple distinctions for use in talking about trust. All are obvious when pointed out, but they are not observed in practice.

Let’s call them:

a) the Grammar of trust,

b) the Objects of trust, and

c) the Actions of trust.

The Grammar of Trust: Trust as a Noun, a Verb, and an Adjective.

What does it mean to say, “Trust in banking is down?” Does it mean banks have become less trustworthy? Or does it mean public opinion is turning against banks? Or both?

It makes a difference – that is, if our discussions are to have any policy implications. This is loose language “signifying nothing,” unless we clarify what definition of trust we’re using.

  • To trust someone is to take a risk, to put yourself willingly in harm’s way of another. This is the verb, “to trust.” It’s what the psychologists focus on as a propensity to trust; it’s the entry point of business books like Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.
  • Trustworthiness is an adjective – it’s an attribute we ascribe to others. It falls in the category of virtues. We use ‘trustworthy’ to describe people who we think reflect virtues like credibility, reliability, of high integrity, benevolent, un-self-preoccupied. It’s talked about in books like The Trusted Advisor as the Trust Equation.
  • Trust as a noun is the state of a relationship between two parties. It exists or it doesn’t; if it does, it is described as high or low, thick or thin, broad or deep. Sociologists use this to talk about high- or low-trust societies or cultures. In business, Edelman’s Trust Barometer primarily (when it is clear) focuses on the state of trust.

Violations of grammar.  When we see “Trust in banking is down,” we should immediately ask: which meaning of trust is being used here?

  • If we mean banks have become less trustworthy, this is trust as an adjective. If this is the issue, then what data is being used to define trustworthiness? And should we seek industry-based or regulatory-based solutions to the issue?
  • If we mean that people have become less inclined to trust financial institutions, this is trust as a verb. If this is the problem, is it unique to banks? Or is it part of a general decline in propensity to trust? What kind of social intervention are appropriate – industry associations? Public relations campaigns? Awareness and reach-out initiatives?
  • Or do we strictly intend just to indicate a decline in the state of trust? This is trust as a noun. It is something we can track over time; but It should always beg the question, why? What have been the patterns of trustworthiness, and the patterns of propensity to trust? What is driving the state of trust lower?

If you’re not persuaded that this is a meaningful issue, consider the national (US) debate on violent crime. By most indicators, the incidence of violent crime over the last few decades is down. And yet the fear of crime is up. This is a case where the verb (to fear) is unlinked to the adjective (highly criminalized). If we don’t correctly identify the problem, we will continue to fix a “problem” (violent crime) which is not the primary driver of fear.

Objects of Trust: Personal vs. Institutional

“I don’t trust car companies – I trust someone like myself.”  It may seem obvious that trusting a person is not the same as trusting an institution – Citizens United notwithstanding – but the difference is often blurred.  We’re not confused by, “I trust FedEx to deliver my packages, but not to babysit my daughter,” because baby-sitting requires an individual, not a firm, and we don’t think of FedEx delivery people as being in the baby-sitting business anyway. Trusting people is fundamentally different from trusting organizations.

This may sound obvious, but major trust surveys, e.g. the Edelman Trust Barometer, say things like “trust in someone like me” is trending up vs. “trust in government” or “trust in companies.” This is a category mistake. The two types of trust are qualitatively distinct; they do not belong on the same quantitative scale. The blurring of lines is similar to that of “friends” on Facebook – we use the same word to describe our digital tribes that we use to describe our neighbors and old college buddies. The common language use must be recognized and respected – but it doesn’t mean the meanings are the same.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” In a similar way, most trust is personal. If FedEx misses two deliveries in a week, my “trust” in them is seriously eroded. Yet if my best friend fails to return two calls, I am perplexed – but my trust in them is barely affected. This is not surprising – it’s not the same trust that we’re talking about.

Trust in particular organizations – companies, congress – is “thin” trust. It’s connected to branding, reliability, reputation – but not to the more powerful personal attributes we associate with trusting individuals. Most people “distrust” congress, at the same time they’re more inclined to “trust” their individual congressperson. This is only surprising if we think the same ‘trust’ is at issue.

Companies that consistently score high on broad measures of trust (see for example, Trust Across America’s Most Trustworthy Companies) are usually, on closer examination, companies that assiduously foster trust-based relationships between individuals – between employees and customers, among employees, with local constituent organizations.

Sloppy use of the object of trust – anthropomorphizing trust when we talk about institutions, for example – should be avoided by writers, and sharply pointed out by readers. The word “trusted” means very different things when applied to Toyota, to my LinkedIn affinity group, and to my next-door neighbor. I may ‘trust’ them all, but we are talking about quite different phenomena.

Actions of Trust: Trust to Do What?

I may trust my dog with my life – but not with my ham sandwich. We all get the difference – and yet we see sentences like, “I trust Amazon – but not Google.” The Amazon/Google difference is probably the same as the life/ham sandwich difference – but we don’t usually hear it the same way.

To see why, just ask what it is that we are trusting Amazon and Google to do? Most likely, the utterer of that sentence means that Amazon delivers fast and reliably, and that Google tracks mountains of information about us. Fast delivery and responsible guardianship of private information are very different things – maybe as different as “life” and “sandwich.”  And yet we act as if we’re making a meaningful statement about corporate trustworthiness when we use the “T” word with both companies in the same sentence. We are not – we are expressing distinct opinions about two very different phenomena.

Whenever you read (or write) something comparing levels of trust – whether it’s between people, or organizations (or across people and organizations), always remember to ask – trust to do what?

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There are other definition issues of trust – for example the general propensity to trust strangers vs. the more specific (and variable) trust in particular institutions or individuals. As Eric Uslaner says, “If you punch me in the face, my trust in humanity is un-diminished – but you are and I are finished!”).  But if we just more critical readers (and writers) about the above three distinctions, the discussion of trust would be greatly advanced.

 

The Single Fastest Thing You Can Do to Increase Trust

Trust takes time.

Well, as I’ve said countless times – that’s the biggest myth out there. Trust can be built in a matter of moments. It’s all about how you go about it. And I can share with you how you can build trust…fast.

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That’s quite a claim. But I think I can back it up. (This thing also requires little time or money, meaning it’s also high ROI).

First, let’s define terms.

• By “increase trust,” I mean something Person A can do that increases their probability of being trusted by Person B;
• By “fastest,” I don’t mean easiest, nor most powerful. I mean least elapsed time between interaction and resultant trust.
• By “trust,” I mean legitimate trust, trustworthiness on the part of Person A. No fakery.

It’s simple, though not easy. Let me tell you what it is; then give you 11 reasons why it is indeed the single fastest way to increase trust.

It is simply this:

Return calls and emails really fast.

That’s it. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But let’s explore further.

First, here’s the basic template for doing it:

Joe, I want to let you know I got your message. I may not get to it until Thursday, but I want to let you know I’m on it. I’ll be working it between now and then. It’s on my to-do list, it’s in my mind first thing in the morning and last at night. You can take it off your worry list, I’m on the case.

Now let’s explore what this does for you and your client.

1. It immediately removes FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) from your client’s mind. All those concerns (did he get it? why hasn’t he answered me yet? was it something I said? Is he avoiding me? is he fighting me?) are gone. Cut off. Stopped cold. You have committed to engage.

2. It allows you to proactively schedule things out to Thursday. (Don’t worry—if they actuallydo need it Tuesday, they’ll be back to you about it).

3. By making a commitment to engage, you create a chance to improve your perceived reliability and integrity—by proceeding to do just what you said you’d do.

4. It demonstrates your attentiveness to the client’s issue.

5. It demonstrates your sensitivity to the client’s time needs.

6. It forces you to address an issue. The tougher and more difficult the issue, the more important this is. How many people have not returned your call in the last three days? The more uncomfortable an issue is, the more likely we are to delay, or avoid, facing it. Unfortunately, the other person knows it. They in turn silently accuse us of passive-aggressive avoidance. And they’re right.

7. By dealing with tough issues—putting them squarely on the table—we show that we are not afraid to constructively engage. The work of John Gottman in marriages shows the enemy of relationships is not confrontation, but disengagement. Returning that difficult phone call forthrightly builds relationships.

8. By scheduling it for Thursday, you show that you’re in charge of your schedule, therefore an efficient server of clients.

9. By scheduling it forthrightly, you show confidence that you can deal with the issue, and confidence itself is confidence-inspiring (I’m assuming here you can back it up).

10. By responding quickly and directly, you validate the client’s sense of the issue as being accurate and timely.

11. You’re going to have to deal with this thing anyway. You can do it efficiently, effectively and confidently and gain all the above benefits; or you can put it off hoping either the issue will die, the muse will descend from the heavens, or the client will forget about it.

Do the right thing. Return that call or email really fast.

Trust and The Mentalist

Some of you may be familiar with the CBS TV series The Mentalist, starring Golden Globe nominee Australian Simon Baker.  The lead character, Patrick Jane, is a consultant to law enforcement agencies who uses his carnival-honed powers of observation and human nature to appear almost clairvoyant.

In a recent episode, Jane makes three trust-related comments. While prepping his co-worker (and lover) Teresa Lisbon how to behave in an under-cover job in prison, he gives her three pieces of advice.

Jane’s insights show he’s a pretty good judge of trust as well. (Or at least the writers are).

Trust Advice from Patrick Jane

Most TV shows treat trust in fairly broad-stroke, big picture kinds of ways. For example, a cop might tell a fellow officer, “I can’t work with someone I can’t trust,” after having been lied to by the second officer.

But that’s relatively mundane. What’s interesting about the Patrick Jane character is that he grasps some subtleties about trust.  He “gets” the advanced version of trust, if you will – as is totally appropriate for the character’s persona.

Advice Tidbit Number One.“Tell them one Big Lie, not lots of little ones.”

On the face of it, truth and lies are the province of credibility – the first of the four elements in the CRI/S Trust Equation. But many truths and lies, over the course of time, affect reliability, the second element.

The drip drip of lies, even small ones, is a double-whammy. One “mistake” can be excused or forgiven. But a pattern of lies is more than the sum of the individual untruths.  It is the difference between a series of lies told, and a teller of lies – a liar.

Advice Tidbit Number Two. “If you want to get someone to lower their guard – lower your own.”

Trust relationships are based on an iterative series of risk gestures.

Consider a handshake. The one who proffers the hand to shake is the trustor, the one who first takes the risk. The other person is the trustee; if they return the handshake, the level of trust goes up a tiny fraction.

What this is about is vulnerability. Being vulnerable makes one available to relationships – and trust is above all a relationship. Note the one taking the risk is the one initiating trust; this runs counter to the usual image of trust as being about risk mitigation.

 

Advice Tidbit Number Three. “If you want someone to trust you, ask them for a favor – even a small one.”

The reciprocal exchange of risk gestures is the template of trust creation. While we usually think of doing someone else a favor as risky, Jane is quite right that the asking of a favor is also a form of risk.

If done sensitively, sincerely, and infrequently, asking someone a favor is a form of flattery. It shows the asker has such respect for the other that he is willing to suffer the embarrassment of refusal. It is a form of risk-taking. It demonstrates vulnerability.

Vulnerability drives risk, which initiates the formation of trust. There is no trust without risk.

The Blind Men and the Elephant of Trust

The Elephant of TrustIn my last post I wrote about the silos that exist between and within business and academia when it comes to trust. There are few subjects outside philosophy for which the question of subject matter definition is so important as it is in the case of trust.

Like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each party sees an important part of the subject of trust – but then is inclined to view the rest of the world in those terms. As the saying goes, if you have a hammer, the world looks like nails.

So this is my attempt to define the differing perspectives on trust, looking across the fields of business and academia. I welcome your additions or comments.

I identify four important views of trust, and I’ll label them by the best-known holders of those viewpoints. They are distinguished mainly by differing focus on the trustor, the trustee, and the resultant trust, as well as by individual, social or institutional trust.

The Psychologists’ View

The psychologist’s view focuses on the perception of an individual person facing the decision to trust. In the words of Mayer, Davis and Schoorman in an oft-cited 1995 article, trust is:

the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.

This is a model built around an individual trustor, not a trustee, and in particular about the trustor’s assessment of the trustee’s competence, integrity and benevolence. It’s my impression that this model is typically portrayed in a rational, self-good-maximizing context, comfortable to behavioral economists, for example.

If you search Twitter streams – the democratic way of market research – this is also the most common use of the word ‘trust.’ The twittersphere is full of “don’t trust women, they break your heart,” or “when people lie to me I can’t trust them.” (Though note: twitter users are a whole lot more affective or emotional than the usual behavioral model allows for).

An interesting application of this trustor-centric viewpoint beyond the individual to the corporate perspective is Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust, where he deals with group decision-making and cultural factors that affect trusting behavior in the company.

The Political Scientists’ View

Political scientists like Uslaner or Fukuyama also focus on the trustor’s viewpoint, but focus on groups of trustors (e.g. nations, or cultures), and on their willingness to trust generally, e.g. their inclination or propensity to trust strangers. It is from this viewpoint that we read about the greater levels of trust in the Scandinavian countries, or the lower levels of trust in southern Italy or in Wall Street trading firms.

Uslaner calls this generalized trust, something measured in the General Social Survey for decades; it changes slowly, unlike trust in specific people or institutions.

The Corporate Virtues and Values View

Where psychologists focus on the trustor’s decision to trust (a verb), business tends to focus on the trustee’s trustworthiness (a noun). At an individual level, that might be called virtues; at a group level, values.

In my own model, co-developed first in The Trusted Advisor, the Trust Equation is the expression of the the individual virtues of trustworthiness – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and other-orientation. At an organizational level, the Trust Principles are the articulation of group values in my own construct.

A recent example of this viewpoint is PwC Chairman Dennis Nally’s article The Trust Agenda. It focuses on creating value through values, and on creating greater trustworthiness from within; and not much at all on the issues of trusting.

The focus on virtues and values is an obvious one for business, which for the most part is more concerned about being trusted than trusting. Of course, being trustworthy alone isn’t sufficient to make trust happen – you need a trustor. Business in general focuses on the trustor role mainly through the eyes of the trustee, just as psychology tends to view the trustee largely through the eyes of the trustor.

Business and academics alike have trouble defining institutional trust; it makes a little bit of sense to say we trust Citibank (or not), but very little sense to say that Citibank trusts us. Both trusting and being trustworthy are largely individual traits.

The business focus on the trustee therefore makes “a trustworthy organization” at least conceivable, whereas the academics’ focus on the trustor makes “a trusting organization” problematic. The answer, I suggest, is to frame trust issues at the organizational level as being about creating trust-enhancing environments – not just about trustworthiness, and certainly not about abstract entities committing human acts of trusting.

There is one important attempt to rigorously identify objective characteristics of trustworthiness at a corporate level; it is the FACTS model of Trust Across America. It is the most data-based proof I know of the corporate-wide profitability of trustworthy behavior.

The State of Trust View

What happens when you measure the result of the interaction between trustor and trustee? You get something like the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is known for drawing conclusions like “trust in banking is down.”

This is a survey approach to trust. It doesn’t try to distinguish lower trustworthiness in bankers from lower propensity to trust by consumers, but instead precisely tracks the net result of that interaction.

Numbers in the State of Trust view are constantly changing (unlike in the political scientists’ view), because the object of trust is very specific (an industry, a government sector), and there is an implied specific action. Asking “do you trust Amazon” presumes a very specific object of that trust – typically to buy books or to guard data. It doesn’t occur to us to trust Amazon with our babysitting.

By contrast, numbers in the political science view change slowly because, as Uslaner puts it, if I punch you in the face, your trust in me may decline, but your trust in the human race is pretty much unaffected.

The Role of Risk

There can be no trust without risk, Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” statement notwithstanding. Risk is implicit in the Corporate Virtues and Values view, and explicit in the other three.

In the corporate realm, partly because of the focus on being trusted, companies have confused risk eradication with increasing trust. There is a vicious paradox of trust – the more either party tries to control risk, the less trust results. Companies who think they are increasing trust by risk mitigation and compliance programs are doing just the opposite – they are eroding trust.

The challenge for business –recognize the role of trusting, both within the organization and outside it.

In the academic realm, partly because of the focus on trusting, it’s difficult to account for the boomerang effect of greater trustworthiness that results from being trusted. People have a way of confounding rational-choice models when it comes to trust.

The challenge for academia – recognize the roles of virtues and values in their own terms, not just through the eyes of the risk-taking trustor.

What business can learn from academia: a structured, disciplined approach to studying issues of trust.

What academia can learn from business: a wealth of real-world data to be studied and understood.

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So there you have it – my attempt to describe several of the blind men feeling the elephant of trust.

What’s your take on it?

Trust in Nebraska

Trust in NebraskaI’m back from a four-day Conference on Institutional Trust at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was one of only two non-academics (the other a most talented Federal judge from Maryland). A few headlines.

First, our hosts – the University of Nebraska’s Psychology Department and its Center for Public Policy – could not possibly have been more gracious and hospitable. Since my parents and grandparents all hail from Nebraska, this was no surprise to me, but still gratifying.

Second, the four days were very enlightening – though not quite in the ways I had expected. This is the first of a two-part series (second part here) where I try to explain what I learned by playing missionary from the Land of Business to the Land of Academia.

Silo City

It was no surprise to me that there’s a huge gap between the business world and academia when it comes to trust. What I didn’t expect was to find silos even within academia. Allow me to explain.

The conference was hosted mainly by the psychology profession, though there were a few business school academics and even a few political scientists in attendance.

The leading model in the psychologists’ view of the world is one produced by David Schoorman of Purdue’s Krannert School, in 1995. I have to confess I had not heard of it, or of him, though the model feels very familiar (competence, integrity, benevolence). Schoorman was in attendance.

Also present was an academic much better known to me, political scientist Eric Uslaner. Uslaner wrote The Moral Foundations of Trust – a masterful and powerful book. It was a delight to finally meet him in person.

One academic not in attendance but whom I’d have loved to meet was Francis Fukuyama, also a political scientist, from Stanford. While better known for his book The End of History, he also wrote a powerful volume called Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Not only is it a brilliant book, but as of today, it still ranks number 216,239 on Amazon.

Let me put that in context: that book was by an academic, written in 1996, and that current sales ranking is competing with Harry Potter, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Game of Thrones. Not bad. (By comparison, 2006’s Freakonomics currently clocks in at #143,189).

So, about those silos. I’ve already admitted I had not heard of Schoorman. To my shock, neither had Uslaner. In fact, Uslaner suggested he knew only about 5% of the 100 or so people in attendance. As nearly as I can tell, they returned the favor. All this despite all of them toiling in the nominally same trust vineyard.

It gets better. I asked a panel of 8 for their views on Fukuyama, and it seemed that only 1 person was willing to comment (I’m guessing, though can’t prove it, they were not aware of his work). And yet they are all academics.

It goes without saying they hadn’t heard of me before (though I will say for the record: as of 9:59PM on 12 May, 2013, The Trusted Advisor ranks number 8,286 on Amazon – despite being published back in 2001.)

OK, so that’s not so surprising. But I also got blank stares whenever I mentioned Steven M.R. Covey’s Speed of Trust – #1,306 on Amazon, outranking all the rest of us. Ditto the Edelman Trust Barometer survey, which gets presented each year at Davos.

Now, the point is not to dump on academics – after all, I’m sure that in any room of 100 businesspeople you’d probably not even find one person who was aware of any of the above-mentioned academics, whereas there were two or three in Lincoln who were aware of some of the business literature. (By the way, props to the academics for being  more rigorous in their discussion of trust than business people, albeit narrower in focus).

The point is, whether you’re talking within business, within academia, or across the chasm dividing the two, you find a general lack of awareness about what else is being done in the field. Add this to the definitional issues surrounding trust, and you get a pretty disconnected approach to trust in the world.

Six Blind Men and the Elephant

But what’s really interesting  is not that the silos exist – it’s the differences between the silos that are fascinating. It turns out that the way the psychologists think about trust is skewed differently from the way Edelman PR thinks about trust. And that in turn is different from the political scientists, who in turn see things differently from groups like Trust Across America.

And that’ll be the subject of my next post, The Blind Men and the Elephant of Trust, an attempt to very broadly scope out the differing perspectives on trust.

Do You Trust Yourself? Should You?

Scared lady iStock_000019585748XSmall copyIt’s a compelling headline: Stop Trusting Yourself.  By Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno, it’s featured in today’s NYTimes, and ostensibly shows that we mistakenly trust ourselves – that if anything, we mis-estimate our own trustworthiness more than that of others.

Compelling indeed; but like sugar water, the headline high is brief. The problem is not bad psychology – it’s bad meta-psychology.  The studies he cites merely describe a part of the puzzle of self-trust, and not necessarily the biggest part at at that.

This is not the first time that “hard” scientists have gushed over “findings” that amount to little more than semantic confusion. The worst offenders are the neuroscientists, who constantly mistake chemical descriptions for higher forms of “explanation.”  But this one doesn’t require much knowledge of science.

Trusting Yourself

First, props to Mr. DeSteno for correctly noting something many trust students miss – that trust is an asynchronous relationship between two parties. Trusting “yourself” makes no sense unless we can posit two identities within the self, one of which can be said to trust the other. (This is similar to the issue of consciousness in philosophy).  DeSteno quite rightly recognizes the need to define those two selves.

The problem is, he picks one definition and one alone – the “present you” and the “future you.”  The rest of his article cites studies about how the “present you” constantly mis-estimates the future you. He cites two “cognitive glitches” to describe this, both of which deal with present and future states.

Well and good. This all makes perfect sense – except that time is only one way to posit the “two-you’s” necessary to make sense of self-trust.  Here are three more. I suspect a bit more thought by the reader would yield more still.

1. Trust Your Skills. As in How to Trust Yourself Over Every Golf Shot,  where the author offers the definition, “Trust is the ability to suspend one’s judgment about one’s performance (swing).”

Here the two selves are the cognitive, self-observing self, and the instinctual, acting self. Anyone who plays golf, or any sport (or engages in sex as a male) knows the debilitating effects in the here and now of over-thinking things.  The same is true for leadership, acting, storytelling, public speaking, and any number of other human endeavors.

Proof that this is an even more common meaning of “self-trust” than DeSteno’s now-future me?  Consider the ubiquity and instantly understood Nike slogan, “Just Do It.”

Note that, in these important realms of life, “trust yourself” has nothing to do with time.

Note also that the advice from this definition of self-trust is to “trust yourself” – exactly the opposite of the “don’t trust yourself” advice that DeSteno posits from his time-based example of self-trust.

2. Trust Your Identity.  Clinical psychologist, therapist and author David Schnarch incisively describes the self-trust that comes with what he calls differentiation:

Differentiation is basically the ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives. One is our urge to be connected with other people, and the other is the urge to be free and autonomous and direct the course of our life. So both wanting to be in a relationship and wanting to be our own person are the two most fundamental drives and the two fundamental problems that couples have in emotionally committed relationships.

[we have developed] a theorem that helps clients and therapists stay on track, and earns credibility with people who trust no one: Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about its own existence. 

The inability to trust oneself leads us to fear others; the inability to trust others leads us to over-rely on our selves. Here the two selves are my self-reliant self, and my other-engaging self.

Proof that this too is an even more common meaning of “self-trust” than DeSteno’s now-future me? Try Googling “I trust myself to” and you’ll get first page hits like this:

When I trust myself to love & take care of myself, it’s easier to trust others because they can’t harm my inner well-being.

And once again – the best advice from this meaning of self-trust is not to distrust yourself, but the opposite – to trust yourself.

3. Mastery over life.  In Trusting Yourself, Barbara O’Brien talks about the Buddhist perspective on trusting oneself to stop worrying.  The key to trusting oneself is to let go of the chokehold of expectation.

The vibration of trusting/having confidence in your ability to create enjoyable experiences for yourself and what is in line with your highest good. A very good frequency for anyone who is stuck in victim mentality.

Again, this is on the first page of results from Googling “Trust Yourself.”

From the Twelve Step literature comes a similar concept, reflected in the witticism, “An expectation is a pre-meditated resentment.” Detachment from outcome is the key to living in the present, which in turn is the key to living over time.

If you think Buddhism is too esoteric, then let’s go to Harvard Business School.  Also on the first page of search on “trust yourself” is an article from the business mainstream HBR Blog Network, How to Teach Yourself to Trust Yourself. In it, author Peter Bregman suggests:

There is a simple remedy to the insecurity of being ourselves: stop asking.  Instead, take the time, and the quiet, to decide what you think. That is how we find the part of ourselves we gave up. That is how we become powerful, clever, creative, and insightful. That is how we gain our sight.

Again: a very common piece of human reality. Also, not dependent on time. And, yet another piece that admonishes us to trust ourselves, not to not-trust ourselves.

Science and Philosophy
To make a gross over-generalization – we have come, in recent years, to err on the side of methodology, data, behavioralism, and metrics.  That has come at the cost of clear problem definition and common sense. This is most noticeable in the softer social sciences, but it shows up even in economics. And it most certainly shows up in social sciences with the trappings of “hard” science – like studies in behavioral psychology.

No branch  of science – not even physics – is immune from the need to properly define questions. Newtonian physics wasn’t wrong; it was just answering one particular set of questions, not all questions.

If you want to examine a social phenomenon – like, say, self-trust – the right place to begin is not with empirical studies, but with doing exhaustive search engine work (the modern version of anthropological field research). How do real human beings, operating in the real world, think about an issue?

In logic, a false premise renders all conclusions logically true. In science, a bad problem definition can support any conclusion whatsoever. In our haste to use all the tools of modern analysis, we have allowed sloppy problem definition. (I won’t go so far as to say we need more philosophers in science. Oops I just did.)

Professor DeSteno is almost certainly not wrong. But that’s not the key question.  The key question is – what problem was he solving?

He says he’s solving the problem of self-trust. I say he’s solving the problem of one aspect of self-trust – an aspect that is not likely to be more ubiquitous or relevant than other aspects, and which notably has a different answer than the other aspects.

Caveat reader.

8 Ways to Make People Believe What You Tell Them

Get Straight to the TruthCredibility is one piece of the bedrock of trust. If people doubt what you say, all else is called into doubt, including competence and good intentions. If others don’t believe what you tell them, they won’t take your advice, they won’t buy from you, they won’t speak well of you, they won’t refer you on to others, and they will generally make it harder for you to deal with them.

Being believed is pretty important stuff. The most obvious way to be believed, most people would say, is to be right about what you’re saying. Unfortunately, being right and a dollar will get you a  cup of coffee.  First, people have to be willing to hear you. And no one likes a wise guy show-off – if all you’ve got is a right answer, you’ve not got much.

While each of these may sound simple, there are eight distinct things you can do to improve the odds that people believe what you say.  Are you firing on all eight cylinders?

1. Tell the truth. This is the obvious first point, of course – but it’s amazing how the concept gets watered down. For starters, telling the truth is not the same as just not lying. It requires saying something; you can’t tell the truth if you don’t speak it.

2. Tell the whole truth. Don’t be cutesie and technical. Don’t allow people to draw erroneous conclusions based on what you left out. By telling the whole truth, you show people that you have nothing to hide. (Most politicians continually flunk this point).

3. Don’t over-context the truth. The most believable way to say something is to be direct about it. Don’t muddy the issue with adjectives, excuses, mitigating circumstances, your preferred spin, and the like. We believe people who state the facts, and let us uncover the context for ourselves.

4. Freely confess ignorance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say, “I don’t know.” It’s one of the most credible things you can say. After all, technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.

5. First, listen. Nothing makes people pay attention to you more than your having paid attention to them first. They will also be more generous in their interpretation of what you say, because you have shown them the grace and respect of carefully listening to them first. Reciprocity is big with human beings.

6. It’s not the words, it’s the intent. You could say, in a monotone voice, “I really care about the work you folks are doing here.” And you would be doubted. Or, you could listen, animatedly, leaning in, raising your eyebrows and bestowing the gift of your attention, saying nothing more than, “wow.” And people would believe that you care.

7. Use commonsense anchors. Most of us in business rely on cognitive tools: data, deductive logic, and references. They are not nearly as persuasive as we think. Focus instead more on metaphors, analogies, shared experiences, stories, song lyrics, movies, famous quotations. People are more inclined to believe something if it’s familiar, if it fits, or makes sense, within their world view.

8. Use the language of the other person. If they say “customer,” don’t you say “client.” And vice versa. If they don’t swear, don’t you dare. If they speak quietly one on one, adopt their style. That way, when you say something, they will not be distracted by your out-of-ordinary approach, and they will intuitively respect that you hear and understand them.

What’s not on this list?  Several things, actually. Deductive logic. Powerpoint. Cool graphics. Spreadsheet backup. Testimonials and references. Qualifications and credentials.

It’s not that these factors aren’t important; they are. But they are frequently used as blunt instruments to qualify or reject. We’d all prefer to be rejected or disbelieved “for cause,” rather than for some feeling. And so we come up with rational reasons for saying no, and justifying yes.  But the decision itself to believe you is far more likely driven by the more emotive factors listed above.