Intimacy: If You Can’t Say the I-Word, You Have the I-Problem

Many of you know about the Trust Equation – (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation. Trust research has shown that of the four factors, the one most associated with high trust scores is – Intimacy.

Recently I’ve spoken with two organizations – one in financial services, the other in professional services – that are uncomfortable using the word “intimacy” in a business context. They’d prefer something a little more, you know – business-ey.

Intimacy, they feel, is, you know, that other stuff…not appropriate…uncomfortable…you know…

The Intimacy Chicken and Egg Problem

This is not new. People and firms from those industries in particular tend to score high on Credibility and Reliability, with their lowest scores often in Intimacy. Still, I hadn’t put left and right together until recently. Here it is:

The ones who score low on intimacy are the ones who do not like using the term “intimacy.”

Which on the one hand is perfectly reasonable: after all, discussion of intimacy feels kind of intimate.

But on the other hand, it raises this question:

If you can’t talk about the I-word ­– how are you ever going to get better at it?

Intimacy: Not Just a Girlie-Man Thing

Intimacy, as defined in the trust equation, is related to empathy. The client of someone with great intimacy skills will feel secure, understood, and comfortable sharing sensitive information with the advisor.

By contrast, a professional with poor intimacy skills is not likely to get invited to the meeting in the first place – rendering the rest moot.

Way back in 1993, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema wrote in Harvard Business Review about Customer Intimacy. Since then, a great many companies talk about “customer intimacy” as a very viable business strategy. Companies from such wussy industries as defense contracting and oil have focused on this concept.

Which raises the question: if the he-men who sell to the Marines and who work in the Awl Patch can talk about “intimacy” – then why can’t lawyers, accountants and Wall Streeters?

Fear of Intimacy

There’s no need to get all Freudian about this. I think the biggest reason for our fear of intimacy in the business world is related to our increasingly dysfunctional idea of shareholder capitalism. The common thread? It’s all not personal.

We have become enamored of Schumpeterian creative destruction – but really don’t care to look at the nuts and bolts of structural unemployment.  That’s a little too, you know, personal.

What’s the purpose of a company? You know, to make money. And what are people to the company? Resources. Human resources. Better yet, human capital. That’s what we’ve come to believe: the word “human” is the adjective, “capital” the noun it modifies. It’s not, you know, personal.

Why is intimacy a no-no for so many in business, while “customer intimacy” gets accepted? Because it’s not so personal, that’s why. “Customers” are collective abstractions, not unlike Mitt Romney’s curious assertion that corporations are people. We talk about “the” customer – but never about a customer.

When we can turn people into abstractions, treat them as categories suitable to be measured and analyzed, then we don’t have to treat them as personal. They can be “customers,” or “human resources,” or “strategic partners” – just not as individuals. Our ideology has let us conveniently dehumanize business.

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The inability to deal with intimacy in business is tied to the inability to see business as personal. It’s the same cloth. The day we can look at a customer or an employee and see a human being – that’s the day we can begin to deal with intimacy in business.

Until then, if you continue seeing “intimacy” as socially inappropriate, you are willfully relegating yourself to less trustworthy status.