Is Building Trust More Like Baking a Cake, or Like Being a Better Person?

If you want teach someone to bake a cake, you’d give them a recipe. First, do this; then, do this. The result is ‘cake.’

You can be pretty confident of the effectiveness of your advice. Further, if someone presents you with a cake, you can confidently infer the steps they had followed to bake it.

If you want to teach someone to become a better person, it gets a little trickier. Defining ‘better’ turns out to be the least of it.  Are there Twelve Steps to Becoming Better? Why not five? Or does it take thirty? Worse yet:

  • If someone does the steps – how likely is it they’ll become “better?”
  • If someone is better – does it mean they followed the steps to get there?

And which approach characterizes trust?

Causality and Predictability

Strictly speaking, causality can never be proven. But casually, we infer it all the time. Tell any fool who doubts the power of causality to stick his finger in a flame and see what happens.

So if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you baked that great cake,” you can give an explanation that makes a great deal of causal sense.  “The key is  to whip egg whites just right,” you might say, and “make sure you bake it just a little longer than the recipe says.”

We understand immediately that whipping egg whites causes a change in consistency, and that time-in-oven affects moistness and firmness. On top of that: if they go home and whip the egg whites and bake it just a little longer, they are very likely to get the same results you did.

But if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you became a great person,” you might say, “A lot of suffering went into that.”  Or, “I read the most amazing book.” That leaves a lot unsaid.

First, a lot of people suffer without becoming great people. Suffering causes lots of things, becoming a great person being only one of many possibilities. Most importantly, does it mean that if you suffer, you will become a great person?

Ditto for reading a book. Maybe that’s how you became great, but how does book-reading in particular cause greatness?  And if I read that book, will I become great?

Becoming a great person is probably more like learning to love, or to write a song. You have to learn to be open, to listen to others, to struggle to understand what others mean when they say something. You probably have to get in touch with your feelings, feel the feelings of others, sometimes give up control.

For a million reasons, the dysfunction of our age is applying cake-baking solutions to great-people problems, rather than the reverse.

Snake Oil, Management Gurus and Trust

A lot of advice, wisdom and selling in this world exemplifies that dysfunction.

In the training business, we have baked in (pun intended) this sort of approach, by insisting that trainers supply language like “participants will master the skills and behaviors of X so they can produce results Y at a level of Q.”

But it’s hardly unique to training. Think of most self-help books, and an extraordinary number of blogposts and magazine-rack tabloids.

Here’s a generic formula you can use, with a few examples:

[Number] [Adjective] Ways to [Verb]  [Adjective]  [Object] to [Gerund phrase]

  • Six Key Ways to Attract High Net Worth Clients to Improve your Planning Practice
  • Ten Innovative Ways to Write Powerful Copy to Maximize Your Blog Traffic
  • Five Proven Ways to Attract a Super-Sexy Date to Amp Up Your Love Life
  • Twelve Most Powerful Ways to Deliver Hi-impact Coaching to Expand Your Consulting Practice

How many books do you know that propose to identify the X most critical determinants of a successful company? Can you say Good to Great? In Search of Excellence?

Cake-Bake Great People?  Or Be Great Cake Bakers?

There’s value in both approaches. But we need to be balanced about it, and as I said above, the greater danger of our time lies in mechanist explanations.

Take trust, for example. Here are two contrasting approaches.

The cake-baking example is  a new report from Edelman, on their annual trust barometer, called What Drives Trust. It uses regression analysis on survey data to suggest 16 Trust Drivers, including “offers high quality products” and “treats employees well.”

Fair enough. Of course, few companies set out to produce low quality products or treat employees badly. But there’s value in forcing them to compare their data with others. And the list of 16 as a whole tells a story, as opposed to other lists that might have been created.

More critically, though, is how the information will be used? Will it be deployed in project management fashion, assigning someone the job of treating employees better so that trust can be improved? Or is the value more heuristic in nature, making for richer discussions? In complex cases like trust, the latter is more clear.

The second approach is characterized by this Management Innovation Exchange video by CEO John Mackey, Can You Measure Trust?  He suggests Whole Foods’ primary metric is an output – morale – rather than inputs or causes.  He argues not against measurements, but in favor of feeling, intuition, instinct. We need more of this, he suggests, rather than more cake-baking metrics.  The best tool, he suggests, is to “be able to sense and feel.”

When it comes to trust, the value of metrics lie in getting us to think, rather than to task and manage. Even then, thinking alone is not nearly enough: trust also requires a bit of heart.

So do a lot of things. Not all life is like baking a cake.

  • John

    Thanks Charlie,

    You make a good point. While there are steps we can take to become a better person or to building trust; it is not so much the steps as the intent. Do I intend to become better, to I intend to become more trusting or trustworthy. It is not easily measured nor is it easily quantified.

    I do however, believe that people can feel the difference and as a result be more inclined to react to ones practice of the recipe of trust building, better person building.

    Have a great day,

    John

    • http://twitter.com/CharlesHGreen Charles H. Green

      John,

      I think that’s right, or at least a big chunk of it. If we have the motivation, we’ll find a way. It’s when we get sidetracked by a few metrics that we get seduced into thinking metrics are the whole story.