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S&P and the New Challenge of Integrity in Business

We’ve all read tales of corporate wrongdoing – think Bernie Madoff, Enron, LIBOR. In most cases, managers engaged in nefarious behavior, knowing they were doing wrong. There are a few cases where the miscreant could plausibly argue ignorance, or good intentions – Martha Stewart, perhaps.

But a recent courtroom defense by Standard & Poors in response to a Federal charge of fraud, opens up a whole new threat to corporate ethics.

Subordinating Ethics to Legal Arguments

Back in April, S&P responded to a Justice Department’s complaint that S&P’s claims of ratings objectivity, independence and integrity were false, and part of a scheme to defraud investors.

S&P’s creative approach was to argue that such statements were only “puffery,” and that a reasonable investor would not depend on them.

Let’s underscore this. S&P, as a legal strategy, decided to disavow its own declarations of objectivity, independence and integrity, saying in effect, “everyone knows we’re just blowing smoke.”

  • Picture Boeing saying, “About that 787 safety stuff – you didn’t really think we were serious, did you?”
  • Picture Legal SeaFood saying, “Oh, you thought we meant genuine bluefish?  Ha ha, silly you.”
  • You get the picture.

This is not a company trying to avoid being caught. It’s not a case of extenuating circumstances, or offsetting benefits.  It is not even arguing an interpretation of what is wrong.

S&P is arguing – as part of a legal strategy – that “integrity” is just a marketing tool. This subordinates “integrity” to both marketing and legal considerations. It puts it somewhere on a par with market research or creative ad spots.

 The Name of the Problem

It’s not just S&P that is confused – the media is implicated too. In his Bloomberg News story on the issue, Jonathan Weil characterizes the problem this way:

The problem is that sound legal strategies sometimes create public-relations nightmares…Often PR and legal professionals end up pursuing conflicting agendas if they don’t work cooperatively. There’s an old test that everyone in the public eye should use when making important decisions: How would this look if you read about it on the front page of a major newspaper or website?

Where S&P’s lawyers confuse ethics and legal arguments, Weil is reducing ethical issues to ones of reputation and PR.

At least Bernie Madoff had a moral compass. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and tried to hide it. But if “integrity” is a marketing tool, justified by ROI or PR, then we are in uncharted waters.

A Simple Problem

This should not be hard to manage. If someone brings a legal strategy of “integrity as puffery” to the Chief Counsel or CEO, this is what they should say in response:

“Excuse me – you are deeply confused.  This is not a legal or marketing strategy issue. There will be no analyses of riskiness, ROI, or trade-offs with reputation. Integrity is not something we bargain with. It is a core value. That means precisely what it says.

“Throw away immediately any work you were doing in that direction. And I want to know tomorrow at 9AM, in writing, why it was you were even thinking in this misconceived direction. Am I clear?”

Which would you trust?  A company with leadership that answered this way? Or a company that went to court with integrity for sale?

Judge Carter, who heard the case, was clear:

The court cannot find that all of these ‘shalls’ and ‘must nots’ are the mere aspirational musings of a corporation setting out vague goals for its future. Rather, they are specific assertions of current and ongoing policies that stand in stark contrast to the behavior alleged by the government’s complaint.

Exactly.

 

 

 

Sales, Surgeons and Profits

iStock_000002256780XSmallThe NYTimes recently published Salesmen in the Surgical Suite, a look at some questionable sales practices in the US surrounding a robotic surgical technology called the da Vinci Surgical System, a product of Intuitive Surgical Inc. The article cites a case of severe damage to a patient due to inadequate training of surgeons, and a variety of documented practices by Intuitive pushing the limits of proper training and supervision.

My point is not to argue the case for or against the company; that’s being done already in a case filed against them. What I do want to touch on is how we should think about issues like this. In other words – just what kind of a problem do we have here?

Profit vs. Patients?

The ultimate issue, I suggest, is the relationship between a for-profit business and the well-being of the end-user customers. Health care is an extreme case, because of the direct link between the two; but in a sense, this is the same issue we face in a capitalist society for any good or service. Healthcare, and surgery in particular, are extreme cases, thus useful for clarifying issues.

There are three commonly heard points of view:

1. There is an innate conflict between the interests of the profit-seeking business sector and the ultimate good of the patients; this conflict must be regulated by a third party of some sort.

2. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business is regulated by governmental and other third parties, who inevitably just distort the ideal workings of pure markets.

3. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business misreads its own long-term self interest by being addicted to short-term fixes, leading to regulation – a self-inflicted shooting in the foot.

The first two arguments are endlessly hashed over, with much heat and little light, in all the various venues of the day: from Congress to HuffPost to talk radio to coffee shops. (I suspect this debate is largely a US debate, as most other developed economies have tilted toward the first viewpoint, far away from the second). I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about the relative merits of one and two.

But number three is interesting: it suggests that the business-society conflict is unnecessary, and that the solution lies largely within the hands of business itself. All that right vs. left, redneck vs. socialist shouting is nothing more than noise.

Is this a utopian, pollyana-ish view? Or is it very real?

The Best Interests of Business

We can reframe the issue as simply, “Is there or is there not a long-term fit between the interests of business and consumers?” Karl Marx answered in the negative, and claimed that the tension would ultimately result in revolution. I suggest that any right-thinking capitalist must answer in the affirmative – there must be a commonality of interest, else the doctrine of capitalism is of little use or interest.

But if that’s the case in the long run – why then isn’t it in the short run? Why do we see salespeople play with endangering people’s lives in order to get the order in before the end of the quarter? Why do companies fight for less regulation, commit economically foolish acts in order to smooth quarterly earnings, and prefer the net present monetized value of almost anything, rather than the longer-term asset that comes from brand, history and culture?

We live in a very imperfect business world, I suggest. We do not do a good job of assessing economic good, or even of assessing business value. We rely on definitions of value which are narrow, solely financial in nature, and short-term. The tyranny of the discount rate leads us to forego thinking about the next generation – it’s just un-economic to worry about something 40 years out, there’s not enough present value in it to justify it.  The Chinese have a history of looking at hundred-year timeframes; the US struggles to get past quarterly, and three years might as well be a lifetime.

The poverty of our financial calculus can be described several ways. Economists would say we do not take into account externalities, so we delude ourselves about the costs of degrading the environment. Social scientists describe it as resulting in a poverty of the spirit (a tone we hear echoed by those who preach ‘the final days of the empire’).

This poverty of calculus is supported by impoverished thinking. Adam Smith was brilliant; the caricatures of him that came down through Ayn Rand and the Chamber of Commerce retain nothing of his focus on the good of society, much less his work on the moral sentiments. Even business theory is impoverished – NPS and Five Forces just don’t have the sweep that we saw from Peter Drucker or even Sun Tsu.

What I’m suggesting is that business needs to radically re-think itself, across the board, into a long-term partnership with the rest of society. The commercial instinct of mankind ought to be a driver of value and wealth creation for all of society, and not hostage to an ongoing battle between haves and have-nots. Whether we need more or less government, more or less regulation, should not be the issue.  The issue should be how can business and society line up on the same team?

We really should be able to do better.

The Case of the Untrustworthy Managers

The Power of Deduction and TrustA long time ago, in a land far away (known as “Texas”), I once had a consulting client. They operated a chain of convenience stores, and we had been brought in to address a serious case of high store manager turnover.

Turnover was running about 150%, which meant the average store manager lasted only about 9 months. It was a tough business. Most sales came from gasoline and beer, and the clientele wasn’t the most genteel. So obviously the company was doing a poor job of selecting managers.

Obvious, that was, until a clue smacked me in the face. As with many retail businesses, shrinkage was a problem. Therefore, every month, every store manager was given a lie detector test. And sure enough, a great many managers eventually flunked the test and were fired. On average, this happened at about the ninth month of employment.

Nice Work, Sherlock

The astute among you can already see what took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. The lie detector tests, intended to uncover deceitful behavior, in fact induced that very behavior. Management practices were suborning thievery.  After a while, each manager would figure, “Well somebody must be getting away with something, maybe I should try,” and another self-fulfilling prophecy would come to pass.

Put another way – management’s distrust of its store managers caused them to behave in an untrustworthy manner.

Cause, Effect, and Reciprocity

Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd was about a completely honest, trustworthy young man. But rare it is that character alone can withstand the attacks of low expectations; the environment we live in plays a key role as well. Employee trustworthiness isn’t purely bought through hiring. It can be reinforced, or incapacitated, depending on the corporate culture that new employees encounter.

The case of the convenience store highlights the vicious circle of low expectations resulting in low trustworthiness. But it works the other way too.  “The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” said Henry Stimson. And apparently Hemingway. And maybe Gandhi, too. And Steven M.R. Covey. In other words, it’s pretty much received wisdom now.

As someone else once said, “Whether you expect good or ill of someone – that’s what you’ll get.”

If you want a trust-based company, start trusting the stakeholders all around you.  That means your customers, your partners, your employees, your bosses, your suppliers. And expect them to return the gesture. The power of reciprocity in human relations is such that you will, far more often than not, have your expectations fulfilled.

Trust, Gun Control, and Neuroscience

It may be hard to imagine, given the horrific events of Newtown Connecticut, but violence of almost all types has been declining rapidly in the US and around the world.

That’s the story in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a sweeping psycho-historical view of human nature by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pinker makes the case with some compelling data, though his ideas may be even more interesting than the statistics. And, they have something to say about Newtown and about gun control.

One theme Pinker touches on is self-control. Have you heard of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment with kids? Young kids grappled with the choice – to take one marshmallow now, or to get two if you can wait a bit? Pinker perfectly describes the accelerating discount rate that we apply to near-term gratification vs. long-term: how much more is a bird in the hand worth than two in the bush?

The answer is, it partly depends on how “in the hand” the bird is. Faced with a two-for-one tradeoff at two points in the distant future, we have no trouble – imagine choosing between two investments, one with a 10% payoff in a year, another with a 100% payoff in two years.

Self-Will and the Proximity of Temptation

The problem comes when that 10% payoff is right here, right now. Deciding whether you should have a grilled chicken salad or a Big Mac for lunch tomorrow is pretty easy.  But what about right now?  When you just happen to be standing in front of a Mickey D’s. And it’s lunchtime.

The closer we are to temptation, the weaker our self-will becomes when up against it.  We know not to shop for food when we’re hungry.  AA reminds alcoholics not to hang around bars. We put the candy on the upper shelf where the kids can’t get at it. “Just say no” has proven no match for making condoms available when it comes to halting teen pregnancy.

In short, moral development and ethical behaviors aren’t just a matter of self-will and integrity.  Good behavior is greatly affected by the social milieu – some of which can be designed into the environment.

Gun Control and Self-Will

We give up all kinds of rights in order to not tempt bad behavior. We post speed limits on roads, and enforce them.  We enforce guidelines about additives in food, and advertising guidelines about health. First amendment rights of free speech don’t extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Yet in the gun control debates, the United States is conspicuous by its refusal to recognize this simple fact of moral design – the fact that availability of guns per se is a driver of gun-based violence.

Proponents of gun control insist on framing it as an issue of self-control, pure and simple –it’s psychology, they say. But even advocates of gun control have been co-opted; they generally focus on approaches like background checks, to make sure mentally impaired people can’t acquire guns.

Screening for gun purchasers is not the problem – the problem is ubiquity, pure and simple. The marshmallows guns are lying all around, tempting the unhinged to seek immediate gratification for their fevered fantasies.

Consider: Per capita gun ownership in the US is double that of any other country – the second-highest being Yemen, far behind. We have more guns in the US than we do passenger vehicles. We have 300% more guns per capita in the US than they do in France, Germany or Austria.

The result is as predictable as it is horrific. The rate of death by assault is about 300% higher in the US than in any other OECD country.  Two-thirds of murders in the US are committed with guns. Our gun-related murder rate is second only to narco-war-afflicted Mexico.

The solution does not lie in buyer screening. The problem is that we are awash with guns in the US.

Yet the response of pro-gun forces to mass murders is always the same – to focus on the self-will of the perpetrator, or on greater defenses by potential victims. This is akin to arguing for greater investor education in the face of a Bernie Madoff, less provocative clothing in the case of rape victims, just-say-no lectures in the case of teen pregnancy.

I don’t think we’ll hear anyone arguing that 1st-graders should be armed to protect themselves. And yet, sure enough, some argue that the solution is armed teachers. Enough insanity.

It in no way reduces the moral culpability of wrong-doers for us to focus on removing the source of the temptation. Why torture a kid with marshmallows if you’re trying to teach him self-control? Why allow ourselves to be surrounded by guns if we’re serious about cutting gun violence?

If we want to create a trust-based society, rather than regress to a Hobbesian world of armed camps (and schools), we have got to recognize the critical role that society plays in establishing norms, taboos, ethics, codes of conduct, and moral behavior. What we do is greatly influenced by what’s around us.

We are not born into the world with fully-formed moral codes that can be appealed to as sufficient conditions for ethical behavior. Ethics is a social construct as much as it is innate. The gun control debate needs to move not just toward tightened purchase requirements and limitations by type of weapon, but toward significantly fewer guns, period.

The Tyranny of Low Cost Strategies and the Gospel of Walmart

High Frequency Trading is in the news again. HFT is highly computerized stock trading, which secures faster execution for bigger computers located physically closer to the stock exchange. It now amounts to over half the daily flow on the stock exchanges.  Critics argue it amounts to legalized front-running, is unethical, and should be illegal.

The issue was raised starkly in a July 24 2009 CNBC interview  wherein a critic of HFT (Joe Saluzzi) accuses a proponent (Irene Aldridge) of defending unethical behavior. Aldridge’s reply:

“How dare you accuse us being unethical! We are the ones cutting margins, you are the ones being unethical.”

Ms. Aldridge’s response captures perfectly the moral flip-flop that business has achieved in the past few decades. Never mind whether HFT amounts to front-running, involves collusive behavior by the exchanges, or is unfair to retail investors, says Ms. Aldridge – the moral high ground, the Ethical Trump Card, is Low Cost. In the name of lower prices, even fractions of pennies, all is justified.

The Gospel of Walmart

Let’s leave Wall Street for Main Street. We all know the Walmart story – low prices all the time. But as a Fast Company article wrote, back in 2007:

The giant retailer’s low prices often come with a high cost. Wal-Mart’s relentless pressure can crush the companies it does business with and force them to send jobs overseas. Are we shopping our way straight to the unemployment line?

If revenue were GDP, Walmart would be the world’s 25th largest economy. That is pretty big market power.

Walmart’s benefits are clear: lower prices, all the time, for millions of consumers. But along with those costs come trade-offs. The reduction of brand power. The exporting of jobs. The reduction of pay and benefits for workers in the name of lower costs to consumers.

More insidiously, what we get in the Walmart deal is lowest-common-denominator consuming. We get buyers who aren’t presented with quality alternatives, can’t recognize them if they are presented, and are trained to view low price as the primary Pavlovian trigger for purchasing.

That’s how we get tramplings at 5AM holiday store openings; that’s how the US produces twice the garbage per capita of Sweden; and I suspect (though can’t prove it) it helps us move toward becoming a nation of hoarders.

Is it all worth it?

The Tyranny of Low-Cost Strategies: Linking Wall Street and Main Street

What links high frequency trading to Walmart?  There is a common ancestor in the family tree of business thinking.

In the 1970s, thinking about business strategy took an abrupt turn – from CUS to COM.  That is, from being about the company’s relationship to its customers, to being about the company’s relationship to its competitors. (If you’re interested, the leading thinkers were Bruce Henderson, Michael Porter, and the Boston Consulting Group).

By 1980, the conversion was complete: anytime anyone said “strategy,” you knew it meant “competitive strategy.”

One of the most powerful points Porter made in his classic Competitive Strategy was that there were two successful generic strategies, and the first of them was Low Cost Producer. He who got the lowest cost got the greatest volume, which led to higher market share and higher profits, which led to lower costs, and so on. It was a road toward legal monopoly, insofar as laws permitted.

Porter’s rules were learned very well: by Jack Welch at GE, by Walmart, by the mortgage business, by Wall Street traders, and by every exec ed program in every business school in the world. It became – and I do not use the word lightly – gospel truth that the highest business good was to lower costs.

The root purpose of lower costs was to gain sustainable competitive advantage for the company. But the collateral benefit, the offshoot which could be spun for great PR, was that the consumer benefited as well. Allegedly.

This insight took only a little bit of tweaking (let’s revise Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, season with a dose of Ayn Rand and a dash of Alan Greenspan, and voila!) to come up with an ideology that said not only is low cost a successful business strategy, it is also the Key to Capitalism, which in a capitalist society is also the source of ethics. Allegedly.

This is how we get to Ms. Aldridge’s high dudgeon at being accused of unethical behavior (“Moi?!”) In this all-too-common alternative view of the world,  profit underlies ethics, business success is the root of morality, and low cost is the Ur-explanation that requires no further referent point for ethical discussion.

“We are the ones cutting margins – you are the ones being unethical.” In that statement, the transformation is complete: low cost is the new moral high ground.

Be careful what you wish for.

 

Cheating at Harvard: Shocked, Shocked!

Perhaps you heard: half of a 250-person undergraduate class at Harvard has been accused of cheating on an exam. Here are:

Let’s get the irrelevancies out of the way.  First, the class was “Introduction to Congress.” Pause for yucks.

Secondly, there are the occasional whiners: “it was really hard, not fair,” or “they didn’t tell us how to define things.” Let’s not pause here either.

Moving right along, now, let’s assume that Harvard is no better or worse than other schools. You may agree or not, but I think the interesting issues lie elsewhere.

David Gebler, ethicist and author of the recent The Three Power Values, says: “It’s the worst hypocrisy to create a set of social norms and expectations in our society of which Harvard is the pinnacle, and then act as shocked as Inspector Renault in Casablanca that the students are acting unethically.”

He’s right. There are three interesting student reactions that seem to crop up in articles about the scandal:

  1. You mean, that was “cheating?”
  2. Come on, everybody does that.
  3. What do you expect me to do, the point is to win.

All three are serious causes for concern, but for very different reasons.

You Mean, That was Cheating?

This isn’t as dumb as many may think on first hearing.

The class in question was conducted making heavy use of teaching aides and study groups. This makes great sense given the need for collaborative workforces in the future. Unfortunately, if learning is primarily group learning, it puts pressure on the academic program and faculty to be very clear about boundaries between individual and group accountability.  (There’s a parallel here between group and individual bonus bases within corporations).

That raises many challenges, chief among them that the exam was “open internet.” In a day and age when everyone can share everything with everyone else in real-time, this goes beyond being just a barn-door of a loophole; it’s a fundamental failure to articulate the distinction between individual and group accountabilities.

This doesn’t mean students didn’t behave unethically; but it puts if anything more of a burden on institutions, particularly on schools, to delineate the boundaries.

Come On, Everybody Does That

To the extent this is true – and it’s considerable – shame on the role models.

As Howard Gardner points out in When Ambition Trumps Ethics, within the hallowed Ivy halls alone there are plenty of examples of

“professors [who] cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research.

Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others’ work — there are frequently no clear punishments. If punishments ensue, they are kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.”

Gardner cites frequent, broad-based, research over time that suggests students over the last 20 years have become blasé about violations.  The majority think firing faculty for falsification of resumes is an over-reaction, and they don’t see much wrong with the behavior of the Enron gang in manipulating prices. After all, “everyone does it.”

I needn’t mention the coverups of the Catholic church, the repression of the ruling class at Penn State, or the general defense of cyclist Lance Armstrong, just to pick a few recent examples. And for heaven’s sake let’s not talk the fate of truth at political party conventions. Sadly, everyone really, really does do that.

“Everybody does that” is no excuse, widespread though it is. Cheating is unethical and should be condemned. But those doing the condemning are frequently those who, like Renault, are by default encouraging the behavior by their failure to act.

What Do You Expect – the Point is to Win

This is the most shocking of the attitudes. While the other two reflect some ambiguity in execution, this argument attacks ethics directly, claiming that ethics should be subordinated to the pursuit of success. A classic ends justify the means argument, which is in principle anti-ethical.

Rich Sternhell, retired executive, says he was not surprised by Gardner’s piece.

“By the time people get to Harvard (or Yale or Penn State or wherever) they have had to compete in ways that never tempted my generation. I note David Brooks’ observation of the recent GOP Convention, how all the speakers with the notable exception of Condoleeza Rice talked about “I” rather than “we”.

Every individual example of ethical violation weakens our community bond.  Baseball players worry about their contracts not the team. CEOs worry about their parachutes or share value, not the legacy of the company.  The concept of stewardship is rarely heard.”

I would throw in for equal blame our leading business thinkers.  We have become subconsciously infected by the doctrines of competitive advantage, shareholder value, and an Ayn-Rand-lensed perversion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, so much that we have a generation that can’t tell ethics from economics.  We actually have game theorists in the Harvard Business Review arguing that throwing a match in the Olympics is in principle no different from a lob shot in tennis – since after all, the ultimate goal is to win.

People, the purpose of business is not to make a profit.  That way lies madness. And a generation of cheaters.

They are still morally to blame, but the people who raised them, taught them, trained them and role-modeled for them are at least as culpable.

 

 

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.

Three Things You Need to Know About Trust: Part 3

There are really only three things you need to know about trust. You can pretty much deduce the rest. The three parts are:

  1. Trust is a Two-player Game
  2. Trust Requires Risk
  3. Trust is Reciprocal

Part 3: Trust is Reciprocal–and What You Can Deduce From It All

Trust is created when one party takes a risk, and the other reciprocates positively. Think of a handshake offered, and returned.

Trust is AC, Not DC

We saw in Part 1 that one player does the trusting, and the other is trusted; the one doing the trusting is the one taking the risk.  That’s true – but only for the instant of that trust transaction. Trust is rarely built on one exchange alone, and the roles cannot stay fixed.

If you focus on being trustworthy, and your client trusts you, good for you. You can play that game for a while, but eventually your client will notice, ‘Wait, I’m taking all the risks here – what’s up with that?’ And at that point, they will stop trusting you.

You cannot escape the need to trust, as well as to be trustworthy. You have to take a risk too. Virtue may be its own reward, but unless you season virtue with risk-taking, you won’t get trust out of the recipe. To use an electrical metaphor, trust is not like direct current, moving in one direction – it’s alternating current, constantly changing direction.

Trust: Deducing Everything Else

In this brief series, I’ve claimed that “all you need to know” about trust is these three propositions – trust takes two players, it requires risk, and it must be reciprocating – and that you can deduce the rest. Let’s test that claim.

Organizational trust.  You may have noticed all my points have been about personal trust. What about organizational trust – trust in corporations, congress, the professions?

House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” In the same sense, all trust is personal. Trusting is something we do with our hearts and brains, one by one, personally; and trustworthiness is an attribute we ascribe almost entirely to individuals. (An exception is reliability: it makes linguistic sense to say that “GE is reliable,” or not. It is nonsense to say “GE is emotionally intelligent.”)

You can design corporate cultures to either encourage or discourage trusting and/or trustworthiness. And that’s pretty much it. Corporations may legally be people, but in the court of human nature and trust, they are largely environments which condition trust – they are not agents of trust themselves, only people are.

Trust, Virtues, Values, and Risk. The tools of individual trustworthiness can be found in the Trust Equation. The tools of individual trusting are about socially acceptable risk-taking. The tools of organizational trustworthiness and trusting – because organizations are environments for trust enhancement – can be found in the celebration of virtues and values.

Virtues are the personal attributes of trustworthiness – encouraged socially.  Values, or principles, are a set of guiding beliefs that govern interactions with others. Since trust is about relationship (remember Part 1), values drive the environment that creates or hinders trust. Among the most powerful trust-enhancing values are collaboration, transparency, and a long-term perspective. Organizations run along those lines create trust wherever they touch.

Trust Recovery. The business world frequently confuses “trust” with reputation, image, or poll ratings. This leads companies with trust problems to seek PR firms to focus on improving their reputation.

  • When your real trust levels exceed your reputation, you have a communications problem.
  • When your reputation exceeds your real trust levels, you have something a lot more serious, and throwing communications-only solutions at it is like throwing water on a grease fire.

Trust broken can be recovered, by the three basic principles above. It requires engagement by both parties, it requires risk-taking (particularly on the part of the offender), and it must be reciprocal. The biggest threats to trust recovery are an inadequate acknowledgement of the degree of rupture, and a refusal to accept the values required to change the state of trust.

Restoring Trust. The social issues facing us from lack of trust are real, and important. They can be addressed using the three principles above.

First, our trust crisis is not due to a global increase in the birthrate of morally impaired people. As noted in Part 1, trust is two-party game. It is about relationship. Trust failures are failures of relationship. Where we have lost trust, we have lost the ability to interact in relationship with others.

There are many reasons for this, including business thought leadership, an over-reliance on market solutions, and increased wealth disparity. All of them have emphasized the individual over the group.

The way to restoring social trust does not lie in better gun laws, tweaked incentives, stepped-up financial sector enforcement, or religion in the schools. It lies in Gandhi’s dictum to ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

It lies in the three trust facts: trust is a 2-player game of reciprocal risk-taking.  That means:

  • Trust is a personal job, not just one for leaders
  • Leaders must lead personally – by example, not by exhortation
  • Design environments that encourage people to trust and be trusted
  • Trust is about relationship – the Golden and Platinum rules apply
  • Trust is about relationship – anti-trust behavior is immature and socially poisonous
  • No pain no gain – there is no trust without risk
  • Trust is AC, not DC – you can’t always just be trusted, sometimes you have to trust
  • Trust is reciprocal – to make someone trustworthy, trust them
  • Blame and an inability to confront are the death of relationships and of trust
  • Run your life like you’d be proud to have it on the front page of the paper

If a trust issue sounds complicated, you’re over-thinking it. Go back to basics. There are only three things you need to know about trust, the rest you can deduce.

 

 

 

Find the Fear and Swim Upstream to Trust

Fear is the root negative human emotion. Scratch the surface of other negative feelings, and you will find fear at the core.

Fear Drives Behavior

If you accept this description of fear, it means you can roadmap people’s emotions. It also means you can diagnose your own.

Fear is the main driver of dysfunctional human behavior. When you see people being passive aggressive, secretive, avoiding, combative, resentful, backstabbing, gossiping, or otherwise misbehaving, teach yourself to ask, “What are they afraid of?” This drives good consulting and coaching.

Fear is a major driver of organization behavior. A culture that uses negative norms (think “that’s a career limiting move”) to enforce compliance is an organization that is fear-based. Learn to notice negative norms, so you can  envision alternatives.

Fear motivates much buying behavior. B2B marketers are taught to “find the pain point.” B2C marketers know the desire to join the in crowd is trumped by the fear of being in the out crowd; “you smell” out-shouts “you can smell nice.”

Fear plays a huge role in politics, as the daily papers demonstrate daily.

In all these cases, fear is the enemy of trust. And trust is the antidote to fear.

Trust Drives Relationship

At root, fear is the fear of a bad relationship—an Other who will hurt us. The effect is to keep us out of relationship.

Trust is the hope of a good relationship. It inclines us to seek relationship with an Other, so that we can gain the benefits of relationship.

You create self-trust by facing and overcoming your own fears. You create trust with Others by trusting them – by being the one willing to first face the fear.

You create interpersonal trust by taking a risk, encouraging the Other to reciprocate. You create organizational trust by creating an environment that encourages emotional risk-taking, dissipating fear.

Trust in politics comes from uniting, not from dividing. Trust in government comes more from principled policies and sharp enforcement than from finely detailed procedures, prohibitions and protocols.

Trust in a culture comes about by ten thousand daily acts of etiquette, courtesy, and generosity, each taken with no calculated return on investment aforethought – and each returned in the same spirit.

Trust in all these relationships rests on an ability to directly confront and speak the truth to each other.  Not speaking truth is the functional equivalent of lying; it feeds fear and alienation, and is the first step to trust-rot.

(Thanks to Seth Godin for jogging my brain on this one)

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Most people see transparency as a good thing, and disclosure an obvious way to get there.  Often, we don’t distinguish between them.

But they’re not the same thing. And confusing them just lets bad behavior sneak back in through the back door.

What’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.

Disclosure

Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.

Over-Disclosure

Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence. And a wise buyer will always look for the transparency that may, or may not, underlie the disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.