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Credibility, Trust and Ignorance

Being right is vastly overrated.

Now, that doesn’t mean that lying is a good strategy. What it does mean is that in the business world, we all too easily conflate trust with credibility, and credibility with expertise.

You don’t have to look too far to find big-name sales trainers and gurus who insist that it is expertise and insights that drive sales success and trust.

I first heard this mantra back in the 70s (and if I were older, I’m sure I’d know of earlier instances).

Well, here’s some truth. People don’t trust you just because you’re smart. And they definitely don’t trust you because you’re a smart-aleck.

In fact, smart is not even a necessary condition for trust – much less a sufficient condition. Further, the role of expertise and insight doesn’t come temporally first in selling – it plays a role in marketing, and then later a role nearer the middle of the sales process.

Credibility, insight, expertise, smarts – all these things do have a role. It’s just not what you may think.

Let me explain a bit further…

——

I long ago attended a sales call with my boss. When asked by the client, “What experience do you have doing this [narrowly defined] kind of work?” he shocked me by saying, “None that I can think of; what else would be useful for us to talk about?”

How is it that we come to influence other people’s ideas? How do we more effectively get others to take our advice? How do we sell more successfully?

The overwhelming answer in the corporate world seems to be, “By getting people to see that we have the right insights and answers.” But that response is very often wrong.

“Being right” turns out to be vastly overrated. Sometimes, even an admission of ignorance is actually a better strategy.

Misconceptions About Trust – How to Gain Credibility

Most of us think something along these lines: “They’ll take my advice (or buy from me, or be persuaded by me) if they think I’m credible. They’ll think I’m credible if I look smart, have great ideas, and have experience. Therefore I’ll tell them about myself, my bright ideas, and my track record at being smart.”

Clients contribute to this subornation by asking us to talk about precisely that (not because they care about the answer, but because they just don’t know what else to ask and don’t want to take the risk of looking foolish themselves).

But credibility isn’t the only element driving trust. And experience and smarts aren’t the only ways to get credibility. Think of the arrogance implicit in saying “let me tell you why I’m the best” before the customer feels you even know their situation. (This is a description of 98 out of 100 cold call emails you get from email “marketers”).

For example, consider humility. Being willing to acknowledge obvious ignorance creates rather than destroys credibility.  The ability to say, as my boss did, “I don’t know,” is an astonishing comment. It communicates ignorance, yes – but it also communicates radical honesty (who is about to doubt an admission of ignorance!).

  • It communicates a sense of self-confidence (“I am secure enough in my worth and my value to admit exactly what I do and don’t know”).
  • It communicates a clear customer-focus – it says, “You asked a good question, and you deserve a straight, no-spin-control answer. Here it is.”
  • It communicates a focus on the long-term – it says, “If this particular piece of knowledge is key, then I may not win this job; but by being always transparent about what I do know, clients will always know they can trust what I say.”

By contrast, leading with smarts alone just says, “I am a database with a protein user interface.”

The Role of Truth

The point is not to adopt a profession of ignorance as a tactic. Nor is it to pursue ignorance as policy. It’s to tell the truth. Your credibility is not just a function of expertise: it’s a result of a complex set of calculations made by someone when they decide whether to believe and trust you when you say something.

Even if people believe you—credibility—that isn’t enough to get you trusted. They must also trust your motives, your understanding of their situation, and your ability to empathize—as they see it.

True credibility comes from letting people see you as you are—not as you would wish they would see you. Transparency trumps expertise. The more you insist on how much you know, the less we believe you: “the lady doth protest too much.” The more willing you are to honestly admit your limitations, the more we believe you. It’s a paradox thing.

No one expects an advisor or salesperson to be perfect—we just want to know where their biases or blind spots lie, whether they know their own biases – and whether they’re capable of admitting them.

That way we can make up our own minds about how much to trust them.

Letting our clients make that decision is, itself, a driver of trust.

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.

 

 

The Problem with Lying

Dilbert on trust and lying:

dilbert

Scott Adams nails it.  With a sledgehammer, as usual. The pointy-haired boss is ethically clueless, and blatantly so.

We all get the joke, much the way we get the old George Burns line, “the most important thing in life is sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

But sometimes it’s worth deconstructing the obvious to see just what makes it tick.  So at the risk of stepping on the laugh line, let’s have a go at it.

Lying and Credibility

The most obvious problem with lying is that it makes you wrong. Anyone who knows the truth then immediately knows, at a bare minimum, that you said something that is not the truth, aka wrong.

The shock to credibility extends even to denials. Think Nixon’s “I am not a crook,”  or Clinton’s “I did not have sex…” or the granddaddy of them all, the apocryphal Lyndon  Johnson story about getting an opponent to deny having had sexual relations with a pig. In each case, the denial forces us to consider the possibility of an alternate truth – and the damage is done.

But credibility is the least of it. There are two other corrosive aspects of lying: evasiveness, and motives.

Lying and Evasiveness

When you think someone is lying to you, you likely think, “Why is he saying that?” Evasive lying is rarely as direct as the Dilbert case; more often it shows up in white lies, lies of omission, or lies of deflection. “You know, you can’t really trust those damage reports anyway,” “I wouldn’t be too concerned about the service guarantee if I were you,” and so forth.

If the first response to a lie is to doubt that what is stated is the truth, then the second response is to wonder what the truth really is. And we sense evasiveness as we run down the list of alternate truths, each more negative than the last.

Lying and Motive

But the most damning aspect of lying is probably the doubt it casts on the liar’s motives. We move from “that’s not true!” to “I wonder what really is true,” to “why would he be saying such a thing?”

To doubt someone’s motives is to add an infinite loop to our concerns about the lie. First of all, motive goes beyond the lie, to the person telling the lie – who is now incontrovertibly a liar.

Second, the rarest of all motives for lying is an attempt to do a  greater good for another. Despite frequent claims that “I did it for (the kids / the parents / justice), almost all motives for lying turn out to be self-serving at root.  (Including the lies we tell ourselves about why we’re telling lies). Why would he do such a thing? Because there was something in it for him, that’s why! It’s almost always true.

And if people act toward us from selfish motives, then we know we have been treated as objects – as means to an end and not as ends in ourselves. This is unethical in the Kantian sense.

Worst of all, bad motives call everything else into question. “If he lied about this, then how can I know he was telling the truth about that? Or about anything else?” This is why perjury is a crime, and why casting doubt on someone’s character is a common way to counter their statements.

Recovering from Lies

We’ve all told lies. At least, everyone I know has. Okay, I have. We can often be forgiven, just as we can forgive others their lies to us. To forgive and to be forgiven, the liar must express recognition and contrition around the full extent of the lie, and then some.

This can be done more easily for the wounds of credibility and evasiveness. “I was wrong to do that, I know it, and I am sorry.” It is harder to forgive the part about motive, because it goes to something much deeper. How can someone be believed about changing their motives?  How easily can you change your own?

 

Short Yardage vs. the Long Game: The NFL’s Fumble

NFL Referee LockoutWould you risk your company’s reputation in an attempt to save what amounts to 0.16% of your annual revenue?

The owners of the NFL franchises have spent decades building the league’s reputation as a trustworthy, venerable institution – with a lot of success. Now, literally in the blink of an eye, the NFL has risked its credibility for relative peanuts.

In case you haven’t heard, the NFL has locked its referees out because they didn’t want to switch their pension plan from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model. A hill to die on? Not.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Referees missing calls isn’t quite news (insert your favorite blind ref joke here). Across all sports, poor decisions are made that affect the outcome of games. What makes the NFL’s referee lockout so newsworthy are the repeated bad calls the league has made.

The NFL made an initial, and forgivable, mistake by not standing by its refs. True, the NFL is a business, and it’s hard to overlook $16 million a year. But by not taking responsibility for their mistake, they are compounding the problem, letting it grow and sacrificing their reputation in the process.

When yesterday they unequivocally denied that a mistake was even made, they simply added further tension to an already stressed situation.

Time to Call an Audible

The NFL’s denial of the controversy is a classic example of institutional refusal to face facts confronting a failure of trust. The desire to cover up – from Watergate to Penn State – runs deep.

But this season is still young; there’s time to resolve the issue and begin to rebuild the lost trust. If the NFL acts humbly, admits its mistakes and ends the lockout, all can be forgotten in a matter of weeks or even days.

But the longer they refuse to admit the breach of trust, the more trust they’ll leave on the field.

Don’t Manage My Expectations

It’s received wisdom by now that you should manage expectations. How could you argue with that? Nobody likes to be surprised on the downside. But as with many platitudes, the devil is in the details. And there are a few devils lurking out there in expectations-management land.

Always Exceeding Expectations

Exhibit 1 is the mantra to always under-promise and over-deliver, perhaps as a way to achieve customer delight. The problem is, if you consistently under-promise and over-deliver, you are – in an important sense – lying. You are deliberately telling your customer (or whomever) one thing, and then doing another. How else to describe that form of managing expectations?

The downside is that, over time, it destroys your credibility. Whether it’s stock analysts looking at your quarterly guidance, or employees expecting you to top last year’s ‘surprise’ holiday bonus, once you say one thing and do another, the only expectation you’ve ‘managed’ is the expectation that your future behavior will resemble what it was – an under-promise – not what you said it would be.

And so the party you’re trying to influence makes their own mental adjustment to counter-balance your expected over-delivery– negating your attempt at ‘management.’ Except that another degree of uncertainty is added on each end.

Managing Attitudes

There’s no question that a good attitude helps with life. Measured optimism, a propensity to trust, a positive outlook – all these increase the odds of positive interactions with others. Whether you expect ill or good of another person, that’s probably what you’ll get.

But what if an entire generation is raised the Lake Wobegon way, believing they’re all above average? What if self-help affirmations are of dubious benefit because on some level we don’t believe what we’re trying to tell ourselves? What if corporate and political spin get so bad that they destroy our trust in the very institutions and people who are seeking to manage our expectations?

Attempts at managing attitude are utlmately seen as patronizing. Whether it’s “don’t get your hopes up,” or “you should feel really good about this,” we resent others doing our feeling for us. We want the right to determine our own reactions, therefore our own attitudes.

Managing Expectations the Right Way

It is true that bad surprises are not a good thing. It’s also true that expectations aligned with reality (or slightly more optimistic) are preferable to living in a fantasy world. The problem is not with the noun ‘expectations.’ It comes with the verb – it matters who does the ‘managing.’

I want to manage my own expectations. You can help me by telling me the truth. That means six things:

  1. Be transparent. Get way past just not lying to me. Tell me all the truth you have access to. Make it a policy to give me access to data-without-interpretation.
  2. Prove to me – over and over– that I can depend on you. Promise me lots of little deadlines and meet every one of them – precisely, on the money, not ‘over-performing.’ Do exactly what you said you would do.
  3. Trust me. Share things about yourself with me that I could misuse against you, take risks on me that allow me to over-perform. Because then I have a chance to prove to you how competent and trustworthy I am.
  4. Respect me. Give me the data and let me make up my own mind how I feel about it. Don’t spin me, don’t tell me how I should feel.
  5. Be straight with me. If you do see my expectations careening out of control, and you think I’m about to make a serious error, then pull me aside and tell me straight; don’t sugar-coat it.
  6. Hold me accountable. Call me on my bullshit; confront me when I fail to deliver on time; be forthright with me when I let you down. And let me know that you expect me to do the same.

The best way to manage my expectations is to treat me like an adult. That’s my truth anyway; what about you?

Lying is to Trust as Kryptonite is to Superman

That may sound self-evident. But lying isn’t the only way to kill trust. It’s useful to review the bidding, in order to realize just how potent lying is.

Then too, there are green kryptonite and red kryptonite forms of lying.

Read on.

Four Ways to Destroy Trust

Using the trust equation as a checklist suggests at least four generic ways to destroy someone’s trust in you:

  • Develop an erratic track record. That leads to a reputation for being flakey, undependable, that you can’t be counted on. Soon enough you’re losing the big jobs, then the little ones. All because you’re unreliable.
  • Abuse others’ confidences. Develop loose lips. Tell secrets. Make hay on inside information. Laugh at others’ misfortunes, or just be emotionally tone-deaf. The invitations will stop soon enough.
  • Use others for your own ends. Do unto others before they do unto you. Always be closing. Find the competitive advantage at every turn. Don’t let your guard down, and don’t be a chump. It’s better to receive than to give.
  • Put distance between yourself and the truth. There are white lies, bald-faced lies, lies of omission, half-truths, partial truths, packs of lies, and lies of convenience. They’re all kryptonite.

Which is the worst?  It’s hardly a walk-away, but I say the last one–lying.

Cold, Flat-Out, Straight-up Lies

Robert Whipple told me of the experience of being lied to, to his face, with full eye contact. That degree of trust destruction is strong enough to take effect instantly. Let’s examine why.

Obviously, if someone lies to you, you can’t believe what they’ve told you. Which means the next thing they tell you has to be suspect as well. Being lied to immediately ruins the speaker’s credibility.

But that’s just a start. Lying also infects reliability. Because if you tell me you’ll do something, but you’ve lied to me before, then I don’t know if I can trust you’ll do what you’ve said you’ll do.

Lying also affects intimacy and confidences. If you’ve lied to me, your motives are suspect. I’m not about to share confidential information with someone who’s been dishonest with me about their motives.

Finally, that same issue of motives makes me profoundly suspicious of your intentions. We do not assume people have lied to us for our own good, but rather for their good. And we do not like that.

Green and Red Kryptonite Lies

As is well known, krytponite of all forms is debilitating or lethal to Superman, but red kryptonite is more harmful. To extend the metaphor, which is more lethal to trust: a bald-faced lie, or a series of veiled, half-truths? I suggest that the latter is worse.

A flat out lie has two elements of truth: transparency and completeness. It’s all out there, right away. When Shaggy sings It Wasn’t Me, it’s such an in-your-face lie you have to laugh. The band-aid is ripped off the scab all at once. If you trust after that, it’s entirely your own fault. That’s green kryptonite.

Then there’s the really bad stuff – red kryptonite lying.

Red kryptonite lying consists of half-truths, incomplete truths, truths not told at the right time. It is often justified on the grounds that it isn’t green kryptonite: “I didn’t actually say anything that wasn’t true.”

Red kryptonite lying is riddled with layers of bad faith. It leaves the receiver with nagging doubt. Why did he not tell me the whole truth? Why did she not bring this to my attention earlier? What about all the other questions this raises?

One trouble with red kryptonite truth is the nagging doubt it leaves you with – the lack of resolution about the issue at hand.

But perhaps the worst nagging doubt is about the nature of the liar himself. Is the liar incompetent? Or is he dishonest? Does the liar even know the difference? Finally – does the liar even know he is lying?

It is sometimes said that the best salespeople are those who can first sell themselves. Indeed, some high-selling salespeople have that ability; but I wouldn’t trust them.

Straight from the Headlines: Trust in People, Companies, Nations

Three trust-related headlines last week:
  1. An insider trading conviction for hedge-fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam,
  2. free-fall in Morgan Stanley’s stock price, and
  3. drop in the Chinese government’s credibility.

A Person

Mr. Raj Rajaratnam, former head of the Galleon Group hedge fund, and once worth a billion and a half dollars, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.  His crimes were the stuff of movies—secret deals and secret messages—insider trading.

Some finance theorists think “insider trading” should be legalized, though most people would sooner see heroin legalized if they had to choose.  Rajaratnam’s white-collar hand-in-the-cookie-jar crimes are, it is generally agreed, egregious and immoral. He’s going where he belongs.

Raj is a poster child for low trust. Lying, cheating, conniving, sneaking—he was everything you wouldn’t want in a trusted partner.

But he is a sideshow. Rajaratnam, Bernie Madoff, Ivan Boesky—these are the movie versions of white-collar crime. Raj and Bernie no more caused our current financial malaise than Bonnie and Clyde caused the Great Depression. And we cannot solve our global trust problems by simply picking off colorful foot soldiers from the Dark Side, no matter how untrustworthy they are.

A Company

Jesse Eisinger in the NYTimes notes that by nearly every financial measure of strength and trustworthiness—more capital, longer-term financing, lower leverage—Morgan Stanley is a stronger bank than it was in September 2008, at the height of the crisis. So, why has their stock price dropped 42% this year?

Trust, that’s why.

Morgan Stanley, and other banks, still holds massive amounts (defined as over $50 trillion) in unregulated derivatives. And of course they don’t want regulation. But they are not stupid—the banks themselves are not about to trust each other when they know the other guy is holding part of that unregulated $50 trillion. As Eisinger puts it:

“Surely no bank would be so reckless as to accept dodgy collateral these days. It would hold out for something unassailable, like, say, Triple A mortgages on American homes. Wait, scratch that. It would accept sovereign debt, perhaps from some European realm that has been around for centuries. Whoops, no, no. Well, O.K., maybe United States Treasuries—and we’ll agree to ignore that one of the country’s two major political parties was willing to plunge the United States into default to achieve its aims.”

The banks don’t trust each other. They do agree that they don’t want governments checking their numbers; they also agree that letting Lehman go was a big mistake—that governments should be willing to bail them out.

But the people are not too happy about their governments bailing out the rich guys, whether they’re at OWS, in Greece, or even in Germany.  The governments are looking like neither paragons of virtue nor representatives of their citizenry.

A Country

Never mind the GOP playing chicken with the US’s credit ratings; never mind Germans and Greeks playing chicken with Europe. As Reuters notes:

Equities jumped 10 percent on the day three years ago when China said it would buy up bank shares in the market. They barely budged after a similar announcement on Monday. The difference is credibility. A sustained financial crisis has shown that governments around the world have a limited ability to make things better.

Nations around the world have kicked the can down the road regarding public expenditures. They’ve done the same thing regarding energy and the environment.

The human race has been conspicuously failing recently at two key trust skills—collaboration and constructive confrontation.

Trust Recovery: Where Do We Start?

Yes, it’s complicated. There are feedback loops everywhere. Beware of simple answers. 9-9-9 may work in a computer simulation game, but does not a tax plan make.  8-8-8 is not the answer to health care, and 7-7-7 is a better lotto number than a plan for campaign finance.

But complexity works both ways. It means the whole system is loaded with causality.  No single change at the person, policy or institution level may be necessary, or sufficient. But actions at every level do have impacts. We can push back at the personal level, at the company level, and at the national level.

It is a good thing that Raj Rajaratnam got the longest-ever prison sentence for insider trading; it sets a moral tone that is in stark contrast to an amoral ideology that we have allowed to infect our entire commercial sector.

It is a good thing that people are protesting the serious transfer of wealth and power that has taken place in recent years, because increasing inequality ruins social trust.

Yes, it’s complex to recover trust, but it can start simply. Here are three steps.

1.    Promote personal character. Don’t fudge your taxes. Don’t lie, don’t ask others to do so, and just say no to those who ask you to do so. Teach your children. Thank people who do good and shame those who don’t. Stick your neck out a little. On alternate Thursdays, pay the toll for the car behind you.  Pick out a small sum of money and give it to a charity that needs it more than you do.

2.    Promote better thinking. We have seen the result of four decades of economists who think that markets are self-clearing and that financial institutions will self-regulate out of concern for their reputation; business theorists who preach competition instead of collaboration; CEOs who think the purpose of a company is to raise shareholder wealth; and politicians who think either that government is a feeding trough or that interstate highways are communist plots.

The result is not good, and much of the trouble arises from bad beliefs. We will not solve our problems through belief in econometrics, patent litigation, or demonization of foreigners. Tell the b-school professors, the law schools, the think tanks and the industry associations to apply their talents to understanding and building systems around collaboration instead.

We are, in fact, all in this together. We need to start believing it so we can act on this belief.

3.    Promote better politicians. Don’t support simplistic ideologies.  Stop contributing to single-issue pressure groups. Scream for campaign finance reform; on everything else, stop screaming.

Read up. On alternate Tuesdays, watch Fox or CNBC, whichever one you makes you uncomfortable. On alternate Fridays, read a foreign newspaper online. Don’t give money to, talk about, or vote for candidates who out-negative their opponents.  Support those with a message and a plan of their own.

Tell the media, the politicians and anyone who wants your support that you’re done with vague platitudes and simple slogans. Tell them you want the truth.

Ask them, “Why should I trust you?” And don’t settle for an answer you can’t believe in.

Why Hard Trust is Gained from Soft Skills

I was in Toronto. Barely glancing at a $10 bill, I thought, “Ha—they misspelled the word ‘dollar,’ those silly Canadians.”

An instant later, I realized the fault was mine, not Canada’s. But before that realization happened–I had made a judgment. And much trust works that same way.

Think hard data causes trust? Think again. Hard trust is gained from soft skills.

The Myth of Rational Trust

Based on 14,000 takers of the Trust Quotient self-assessment test, we can confidently say most businesspeople overrate the importance of credibility in establishing trust. In practice if not in theory, they believe they can induce trust through PowerPoint. The fact is, more expertise ≠ more trust.

Most also believe that trust takes a long time to build and only a moment to destroy. In fact, trust takes about as long to destroy as it took to build—the time for each is a function of the depth of trust involved.

Both these beliefs—over-stating credibility and misunderstanding the speed of trust—are part of what I’ll call the Myth of Rational Trust. Simply stated, the myth says:

“The decision to trust is a conscious and cognitive process of weighing risks and returns, seeking the option most suited to increase the present value benefits of the one potentially doing the trusting.”

And monkeys fly.

How People Really Trust

People make decisions to trust, or not to trust, well before cognition can show up on the scene. Consider my immediate judgment that the Royal Canadian Mint had neglected to use spellcheck on its currency.

We make many trust decisions not on the basis of analytical criteria, but on the more autonomic instincts of whether something accords with deeply ingrained habits. Is he frowning or smiling? Is he holding out his hand to shake mine? Is ‘dollar’ spelled with one L or two?

Who was I to believe—my spelling instincts, honed since elementary school, or the Canadian government, with whom I have far less experience?  It was, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. I’m a very good speller; and I trust my instincts. Just like you do.  And if that meant Canadians couldn’t spell, I was for an instant willing to conclude that must be the case.

That is how the brain comes to trust.  In the case of currencies, the rational mind can quickly step in and say, “Wait a minute, are you kidding–how likely is that!? Does not compute. Hey, lying eyes, go take another look at that loonie bill.”

Easy enough when it comes to currencies.  But what happens when it comes to more complex phenomena? How do we come to trust in nurses, in salespeople—in politicians and institutions?

Lessons for Trusting

I recently saw an online comment to an economist’s article.  It started out, “I am open-minded, but when I got to your second sentence about the Bush tax cuts I quit reading—you are obviously a fool.”

Not open-minded at all—but neither are most of us.  We all have opinions on the issues du jour, and we dangerously tend to read only those who agree with us.

Which suggests that very few people’s minds are changed by confrontation with disconfirming data.

Instead, they are changed by the deeply-ingrained instincts we have come to rely on.

Personal Trust

In the personal-trust arena, our TQ research shows that the “intimacy” factor is the strongest of the four in the trust equation. Whether someone feels safe and secure sharing information with you is more powerful than your hard-won credentials, fancy slides and long list of past clients.  The saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is not some idle sales line; it is deeply grounded in psychology.

A recent Wired story (Why Brains Get Creeped Out by Androids) suggests that we may trust robots doing people tasks, and we may trust people doing people tasks, but we get deeply suspicious if we see robots who look like people doing people tasks.  It has nothing to do with robots or tasks, but simply to an incongruity (“Wait, they’re not supposed to look like that, what’s going on here!?”)

How to be trusted? It lies in connection, focus, good will, hand shakes, empathy, listening, caring, bedside manner.  The road to hard trust is paved with soft skills.

Social Trust

How can Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation regain trust? Not by hiring a PR firm.  How can the US Congress recover from the debacle of its recent circular firing squad exercise? Not by more speeches.

The decision to trust often happens in an instant.  But that instant is just the reaction to a lifetime of conditioning experience.  If we are conditioned to think that all politicians are self-dealing bloviators, we didn’t get there overnight.

Trust takes as long to lose as to gain; and as long again to get it back. The answer to low trust in our companies and our institutions will not be found in quick hits, PR campaigns, new ideologies, changed incentives or new leadership.

It will come about as a natural result of sustained, across-the-board changes in beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Companies actually have to behave responsibly; Congress actually has to make things work; advisors actually have to have their clients’ best interests at heart.  There is no quick fix. There is no reason to trust someone if they have created a history of being in it for themselves and untrustworthy.

But it can be done. Institutions used to be more trusted than they are now. We un-did that work, we can re-do it again.  And if we do, the instinct to trust can work as quickly as the instinct not to.

Think Before Sending

What would you do?

That’s what my daughter’s 8th grade class was asked last year. The subject: texting secrets.

One girl had texted to a friend another friend’s embarrassing secret. But she didn’t just send it to one BFF— the text went out to everyone in the class—including, of course, the hapless girl whose secret was no longer.

Sound familiar? I recently received a message sent from one educator to a couple of colleagues regarding a student.  It also went to the institution’s entire mailing list.  This happens a lot in business too.  “Reply all” inadvertently pressed sends messages to the wrong person or people, or to entire lists.  Sometimes those slipped messages lead to a career and/or personal life hurt or destroyed.

The cause: carelessness, haste, anger? Doesn’t really matter. Who would think a simple button on a screen marked “send” could cause so much havoc?

Not Just Another Reply-All Horror Story

We could talk about how to recover from the gaffe via an apology. We could talk about how to use email properly.

Or–we could discuss how these types of issues affect trust.  And they do.  Think of this from the perspective of the Trust Equation.  Sending to the wrong person or group of people reduces Credibility and Reliability.  What gets inadvertently shared decreases Intimacy–after all sharing a secret shows a lack of discretion, even if done by mistake.

Here’s what my daughter learned as a result of this exercise with her class:

  • Double check everything before sending any electronic message (email, text, Facebook, IM)
  • Consider the medium–should the message be sent electronically, or is it better delivered in person or by phone
  • Should it be sent at all, by any medium (is it gossip or otherwise inappropriate to share)
  • Be prepared to do the right thing in the event things don’t work out.

The Big LessonLess Is More

As I thought about it, I think the third point—“should it be sent at all”—is by far the more powerful lesson my daughter learned that day.  Think it through.  Take a deep breath.  Count to ten. What’s your role in the situation?  What will the consequences be? Will saying anything really matter in a positive way?

These are profound lessons for all of us.  Adults suffer all the time from not having learned these lessons earlier in life.  How often do we act out and regret later?  How often do we say hurtful things even when we don’t mean to and suffer remorse?  How often do we hurt those we love?

Some time ago I learned from a lawyer colleague I respect and trust, that when it comes to the written and spoken word, less is more.  Shouldn’t we at least think about this before we hit Send?

I think my daughter learned a few rules of email etiquette that day—and one massive lesson about living life as a human being.

I’m pleased it was a topic for an 8th grade class, and it’s not the first time her school addressed real world issues.  I just hope we don’t have to wait for this generation to grow up before these valuable lessons are commonly used in the business community.

Creating a Culture of Trust: Virtues and Values

This post comes from our upcoming book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading With Trust, from the chapter on Implementing a Culture of Trust. Tools for trust initiatives include principles, or values, at the organizational level, and personal attributes, or virtues, at the individual level. The chapter explores five tools for implementing trust change initiatives: leading by example, stories, vocabulary, and managing with wisdom. This post explores two diagnostic tools: the Trust Temperament™ and the Trust Roadmap.

We will be sharing selected portions of the book with our readers leading up to the publication date. The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook will be available from Wiley Books on October 31, 2011, or you can pre-order The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook today.

What Is a High-trust Organization?

Our definition: an organization of people who are trustworthy, and appropriately trusting, working together in an environment that actively encourages those behaviors in employees as well as stakeholders.

Creating a culture of trust requires a different emphasis than do most change initiatives. What works to reduce accident rates, increase customer-centricity, or become ISO-9000 compliant isn’t the same as what’s needed to create a high-trust organization.

Trust is about interpersonal relations. For people to trust and be trusted by others, they must take personal risks and face personal fears in ways that cannot, by their nature, be fully planned and structured in ways that typical change initiatives can rely on.

That suggests a different emphasis: an initiative built around personal change.

Two Keys to Trust Culture Change: Virtues and Values

Creating a high-trust culture boils down to two main thrusts: virtues and values. “Virtues” are the personal qualities that high-trust people embody, and “values” are what guide the organizations they work in. In trust-based organizations, virtues and values are consistent and mutually reinforcing.

We use these words very intentionally, because they’re commonly understood–and common language matters. Each deserves its own word and understanding, and both are required for trust culture change. In our experience, some companies rightly focus on organizational values, but few focus enough on personal virtues.

The virtues of trust are personal, and involve your level of trustworthiness and your ability to trust. The virtues of trust are contained in the trust equation: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation.

It is virtuous for someone to tell the truth, to behave dependably, to keep confidences, and to be mindful of the needs of others. Unless people take personal responsibility for their own behavior around trust, the organization will never be a trust-based organization.

The values of trust are institutional, and drive the organization’s external relationships, leadership, structure, rewards, and key processes. The values of a trust-based organization are reflected in the four trust principles: other-focus, collaboration, medium- to long-term perspective, and transparency. An organization that espouses these values treats others with respect, has an inclination to partner, has a bias toward a longer timeframe, and shares information.

Trust-based organizations take values very seriously. If your organization has never fired someone for a values violation, then either you’ve been astoundingly successful in your hiring and development efforts, or you’re not a strongly values-driven organization.

Diagnosing Trust

To improve virtues and values, it’s helpful to know where you’re starting from—to have some kind of diagnostic. For virtues, there is the trust quotient: for values, there is the Trust Roadmap™.

Virtues.

The trust quotient is a self-diagnostic taken at the individual level, based on the four values of the trust equation.   With individual data aggregated anonymously at the group level, you can profile the organization in terms of Trust Temperaments (the pair of highest-scoring values in the trust equation for an individual), as follows:

Trust Temperament™ Highest Ranked Attributes Motto
The Expert C, R “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”– Anonymous
The Doer R, I “As for accomplishments, I just did what I had to do as things came along.”– Eleanor Roosevelt
The Catalyst C, I “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Professor C, S “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”– Albert Einstein
The Steward R, S “My goal wasn’t to make a ton of money. It was to build good computers.” – Steve Wozniak
The Connector I, S “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”– Anonymous

 

Values.

The Trust Roadmap is a diagnostic tool that surveys the Trust Values across components of organizations, as below:

Collaboration Medium- to Long-Term Perspective Transparency Other Focus
External Relationships
Leadership
Structure
Rewards
Processes

 

Generic and organization-specific questions are developed for each of the 20 cells, and the survey administered to groups of stakeholders: customers, employees, managers, for example.   For example, the question for Leadership and Medium-to-Long Term Perspective might be “Your leaders are willing to sacrifice short-term gains for the long-term benefit of the organization.”

The survey results allow a management team to assess, in a structured manner, where the organizational values that drive trust are being implemented, and where they’re not; how those patterns vary across constituencies; and what they feel the priority should be in addressing the issues.  In short, a Trust Roadmap.


The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading With Trust will be published by Wiley Books on October 31, 2011.  Pre-order your copy of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook today.