Is Self-Orientation Killing Your Trustworthiness

When Maister, Galford and I wrote The Trusted Advisor in 2000 one of the more popular themes in the book was the Trust Equation.


            T             = Trustworthiness

            C            = Credility

            R            = Reliability

            I            = Intimacy

            S            = Self-Orientation

And within that equation, the factor that has stirred the most interest over the years has been the denominator, self-orientation.   In the trust equation, since the S factor is in the denominator, a high level of self-orientation reduces trustworthiness.   A low level of self-orientation serves to increase trustworthiness.

Let me explain this further.

Self-Orientation Is About Where Your Attention is Focused

When you are standing in front of a room presenting, and your pulse rate is high, your palms sweating, your breath shallow and fast – in those moments, your self-orientation is quite high, because you are focusing on yourself.

The key to successful presenting lies first and foremost in getting out of the trap of self-orientation. You need to have the calmness, confidence and curiosity to see the audience and its needs rather than to see them as instruments of torture for you.

For synonyms or drivers of high self-orientation think self-obsessed, self-conscious, self-loathing, self-aggrandizing, full of self, un-self-confident.

When we are operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our own head drowns them out.

The psychology goes like this: if your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they are likely to trust you.

Conversely, if your attention is focused on yourself, others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they then decide you are untrustworthy.

 It is hard to pay attention, therefore hard to care, and therefore hard to be trustworthy if your attention is all on yourself – your self-orientation is high.

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

You may be selfish, in which case you are probably pretty self-oriented. But you may also be highly unselfish yet attached to the idea of others seeing you as unselfish. That is also high self-orientation.

Sometimes people equate low self-orientation with passivity or with willingness to give away business, cut price, or otherwise let the other party “win.” It means nothing of the kind.

A low self-orientation is critical to legitimate client focus. You cannot be focused on customers for the sake of the customer if you are obsessed with the moral activity in your own brain. Since client focus is a driver of profitability, this leads to a wonderful paradox: if you focus on achieving profitability by way of client focus, you will sub-optimize. Yet if you focus on the good of the client, rather than the funds you can extract from their accounts, you will achieve greater profitability – by treating it as a byproduct rather than as a goal.

Low self-orientation is not some soft form of capitalism. It is rooted in the simple psychological observation that human beings return good for good, but only money for goods. Retention economics and returns to scale in the real world are driven heavily by a sense that parties are out to help each other, not to gouge each other. Low self-orientation drives higher profitability, not lower.

I will write another blog this week giving some practical examples of high self-orientation, so that you can spot them as they arise. In the meantime, let me offer a simple practical tool for diagnosing high self-orientation:

Seek humility. That does not mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.