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Playing a Losing Hand to Win

Four years and 9 months ago I wrote a blogpost called An Honest Wedding. It was about the nuptials in western Michigan of a cancer patient “Jane,” and the widower of a cancer victim, “John.”

This week I was back in Michigan, to attend the inevitable bookend of that blogpost – the funeral of “Jane,” in real life my youngest sister, Priscilla. She was beautifully eulogized by the same minister who had married them.

What stood out was not the tragedy of a good woman lost before her time, but the extraordinary good she made of her life. She played a losing hand, and won.

A Losing Hand

Priscilla had multiple myeloma, a disease that normally has a life expectancy of 1-3 years. She ran it out for 17.

An RN, she had experience in both midwifery and hospice. She had the ability to serve as her own patient advocate, and she did so successfully.

Still, back in 2007, the marriage of a recently-divorced woman already living on borrowed time to a recently-bereaved-by-cancer widower seemed like a long shot bet on the romantic triumph of hope over cold reality.  With four children in play, two of whom had lost one mother already, the potential for emotional damage seemed almost unbearable.

The Honest Wedding mitigated that risk by facing it squarely and directly. But honesty alone can’t stop multiple myeloma.

Winning with a Losing Hand

Over a hundred people attended her celebration this Saturday; it opened with the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, and closed with drums and trumpet playing When the Saints Go Marching In.

The eulogy, and a dozen people who testified, all said the same thing: she had managed to win, despite having been dealt a losing hand. The longer she lived, the more imminent her death seemed, the more she became kind, open, giving, caring, appreciative, and often joyful.

As the minister said, “She found a way to hold on to every precious moment of her life at the same time that she released her hold on it and let it go.” As her sister said, Priscilla was an old soul since childhood; she was a caretaker, sharing easily of her emotions.

She found her way, everyone agreed, through a focus on simplicity and flexibility: living in the moment by focusing on nature, caring about others, and accepting life on life’s terms. At the same time, her journey involved finding her own boundaries, trusting her own instincts. The minister again:

There are people who become bitter and angry when cancer comes and death looms. They resist help and communication about their illness. Not Priscilla. She embraced her lot in life, her destiny, and took us along on the journey with her.

Some people say it takes a village to raise a child. I think – it takes a village to live a life.

To the last days and even hours of her life, Priscilla remained this way: engaged, and in love with life and with those in her village.

That village, represented at the ceremony, included her first husband, with whom she had forged a deep friendship, all five children she had helped raise, members of all churches she had been part of, and innumerable micro-communities she had touched.

I truly don’t think Priscilla ever lost a friend she’d ever made, and she made many.

She played a losing hand and won, not just for herself, but for everyone else who had placed a side bet by being part of her life and her village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Separation: a Cinematic Tale of Truth and Lies

This past weekend I saw A Separation, an Iranian movie with more awards to its credit than a dictator’s military jacket. It deserves every one of them.

You’ll never find better screenwriting. Rolling Stone rightly calls it “a landmark film.” Filmcritic calls it a brilliant political metaphor. Roger Ebert praises it as a critique of religion. The Irish Times calls it “a thoughtful film that also works as a crackling melodrama.”

It is all those, and something else. It’s a poster child for the corrosive influence of lying and the power of truth-telling.

Relationships in Disarray

I’ve often quoted (and will again here) Phil McGee’s brilliant insight that “all business problems flow from a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.”

In A Separation, we see a couple struggling with their relationship. The wife wants to leave Iran; the husband refuses to leave his ailing father. The wife goes to stay with her parents. Their daughter is caught in between.

A woman, hired as a caregiver to the ailing father, brings her volatile husband into the mix. A small set of events trigger a progressive breakdown of relationships among these five key characters.

It is the breakdown that is portrayed so brilliantly. All five are shown as partly sympathetic, and the incidents are so trivial that it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina. And so the plot feels inevitable – the situation falls into disarray like water forming a funnel down the sink.  How could it be otherwise?

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Until, that is, you realize that every one of these people is fundamentally, deeply, living a lie. One’s lie is about honor; another’s about God; a third about loyalty to family. All the lies seem trivial, and understandable. But they all collide; irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.

And I realized, walking out of the theater, that every single one of those characters held the power within them to change everything – simply by being willing to tell the truth. And the power they held was not just to change themselves, but to change everyone else as well – the entire situation.

A Tendency to Blame, and an Inability to Confront

Back to McGee’s thesis. Dysfunction in groups is rarely about one stubborn person gumming up the works. That is the blame game. The one bad apple spoiling the barrel.

More often, it’s a group conspiracy that’s at fault; the entire organization opting to point fingers, rather than engaging in confronting the true issue at hand. And as the movie reminded me, a conspiracy doesn’t need to be undone by everyone – a single defector can do the job.

All it takes is one person to Speak the Truth, to point out the emperor’s new non-clothes. If that can be done, everyone else immediately recognizes that truth has been spoken. Then, whether from shame or from gratitude at someone else having taken the first step, the healing can begin.

Is this too abstract? What about you? What tangled webs are you a part of? What truth might be spoken by others caught up in the web that would set everyone free?

What truth might be spoken by you?

Trust Tip Video: Truth is More Than Not Lying

We all think lying is bad. Pretty much, mostly, usually. We think of lying as saying something that is not true. But not saying something that is true can get us in even more trouble.

We underestimate the power of truth-telling.

That’s what this week’s Trust Tip video is about.

For more on the subject of truth-telling, lies and untold truths, you might enjoy reading Truth, Lies and Unicorns.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

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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.

Trust Tip Video: Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Taken

We all spend an awful lot of time, money and effort trying to convince others of our attributes. We want them to see us as we imagine that we want to be seen.

We underestimate the power of doing exactly the opposite – letting people see us just as we are.

That’s what this week’s Trust Tip video is about.

For more on the general subject of authenticity and honesty, look at Trust, Honesty and Authenticity, a blogpost from two years ago.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

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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.

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?

Are You as Credible as You Think? Probably Not.

There are lots of ways to build trust with others (four, by our count) and Credibility is a big one. In our Trust Quotient research, Credibility shows up as second only to Reliability as the most favored way to build trust. (‘Most favored’ doesn’t mean ‘most effective,’ but that’s another blog, another day.) 

This makes sense, given the emphasis that most business people naturally place on increasing trustworthiness by demonstrating credentials, experience, and know-how.

The risk is that we stop there or—even worse—spend too much time there. Picture the March of 1,000 Slides.

There’s more to Credibility than meets the eye.

Three Dimensions of Credibility

When thinking Credibility, we mostly think words, as in what you say and how you say it. That means that having information, perspectives, opinions, and recommendations are all important—especially for people in professional services whose very existence depends on high quality advice-giving.

But there’s more. Speaking the truth matters too. A lot. As does delivering your message in a way that makes it easy for others to understand and relate to.

Top Ten List of Ways to Build Credibility

Here’s a Top 10 list of tried-and-true Credibility builders, categorized by Credibility’s three main dimensions.

Feature your expertise and credentials:

1.    Be diligent about researching your customer;

2.    Know about industry trends and information, as well as business news;

3.    Write about your areas of expertise—articles, blogs, white papers;

4.    Host events that bring key stakeholders together.

Improve your delivery:

5.    Use metaphors and stories to illustrate your point;

6.    Practice your delivery so you are clear … and clearly relaxed;

7.    Combine your words with presence—a firm handshake, eye contact (when culturally appropriate), a confident air.

Demonstrate your truthfulness:

8.    Offer your point of view when you have one;

9.    Respond to direct questions with direct answers;

10.   Be willing to tell a hard truth when it’s the right thing to do—including “I don’t know.”

 And as a bonus:

11.   Never ever lie. (This includes tiny little white lies and lies by omission.)

This last category, truthfulness, gets at one of the paradoxes of trustworthiness: The thing we’re most afraid to say is often what will build the most trust.

By the way, our clients tell us the truth-telling part pretty much applies to all cultures. Even in Asian countries, where saving face is paramount, the Trusted Advisor’s dilemma is generally less about whether to tell the truth and more about how to deliver the truth in a respectful and culturally-appropriate way.  

Credibility-Building Can Happen Lightning Fast

This expanded view of Credibility is good news for anyone new to a profession or new to a relationship. This part of trust–building your Credibility–doesn’t have to take time; being refreshingly honest can build trust in an instant.

Most clients and customers are so used to spin they will immediately take note. So you can actually leave the PowerPoint deck back at the office (or bring it as a leave-behind) and focus on engaging in a genuine, transparent, and honest conversation. Heck, you might even build some Intimacy in the process.

Take Stock and Take Action

Feeling stuck in a particular relationship? Do a credibility check. Start with the honesty dimension—it’s the least comfortable and highest payback. Ask yourself what you’re thinking and not saying, or saying to some but not to all.

 Then do something about it. You’ll be glad you did.

Trust, Honesty and Authenticity

A few months ago, Deborah Nixon posted an interesting question on LinkedIn. She asked: “Is there a difference between authenticity and honesty?”

She got about 35 answers, and they all make for interesting reading. Here’s what I sent in:

Deborah, I’m sure you would agree the two terms cover a lot of territory in common. The trick with these definitional things is not to discover some underlying reality, because there is none; these are conceptual models that help us explain the world. They are good or bad insofar as they help us; so I’d suggest starting there. What’s the most useful way to distinguish the two?

One way might be to say that authenticity is largely passive, and honesty is largely active. When we say someone’s honest, we usually mean they tell the truth, and go out of their way to do it.

Sometimes we also mean that they don’t tell a lie–but that’s far from all the time. You often hear someone way ‘well, he was honest–he didn’t actually tell a lie.’ In such a case, ‘honesty’ just means I didn’t utter an untruth; it’s perfectly consistent with covering up all other kinds of truth. So the casual use of ‘honest’ may rule out sins of commission, but not sins of omission.

That’s why the legal language "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is required in court; to prevent the ‘honest’ witness from conveniently leaving something out, or snow-jobbing the court with irrelevancies.

Authenticity, on the other hand, I think usually implies a lack of attempt to control another’s perception. It means letting others see us as we are, warts and all. I think it also goes one more step: it means letting everyone see us in a way that’s no different from how anyone else see us: that is, we don’t play favorites in terms of constructing alternative fictions to respective people.

At a corporate level, a company might support a claim of honesty by pointing to the truthfulness of its statements, or the lack of court cases against it. Again, ‘honesty’ conveys a sense of ‘never knowingly told an untruth.’ Whether it includes consciously allowing other people to make incorrect inferences by not telling them something–well, that’s not entirely clear.

Authenticity is a whole ‘nother level. It means not hiding out, opening the door in things that are not excluded through standard rules of privacy, letting the chips fall where they may. Further, I think it usually entails a commitment to be authentic, not just a convenient lifestyle.

Seems that of the two, we might say that authenticity is broader (i.e. it encompasses being honest, but goes beyond that to proscribe sins of commission).

On a practical level, people who strive to be honest often talk of it as a struggle: to resist temptation, to not gossip, to say things that can be embarrassing if they are true.

People who choose to be authentic have, in a way, an easier time of it.  For someone who is authentic, the daily default way of life doesn’t involve decisions or will power: the default is openness, there is no issue of control vs. transparency.

Things are what they are, and there is no threat about them.

What’s trust got to do with it?  To trust a person or a company, honesty is table stakes.  If you suspect they’re lying, trust is stopped dead in its tracks.  But even if they’re honest, that’s nothing compared to authentic.  Think how much more BP, Toyota or Goldman would have been trusted even in the presumably honest statements they made, had they not created an historical pattern of inauthenticity. 

The Wrong Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

This is week three for me of a four-week road trip. I’m getting a little loopy, but am collecting some wonderful client experiences, lessons and stories. Here’s one from a British account executive.

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone—how shall I put this—well, as we English say—passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out—all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other—and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well fortunately, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor—an excellent tool—and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

How many of us waste moments like that, buried in our own fear of speaking the truth? And how many sales do we leave on the table because of it?

 

When You Can’t Trust Your Leadership

In my corporate seminars, I often hear the following:

Love the trust stuff, Charlie, but I can’t take that risk in this organization. Leadership talks a good game, but I don’t always believe them. People have been burned for taking risks around here.

Before I can risk trusting them—how can I assess the risk? How do I know I can trust them?

First, I’ve seen several cases where leadership was genuinely asking people to do right—best long-term, transparent, customer-focused—and the employees were cynical. It wasn’t a leadership problem, but a followership problem.

But never mind: let’s assume your leaders really are not all that trustworthy. What is to be done?

In fact, this is no different from any other trust situation. If both parties sniff around each other, waiting to see who’ll take the first risk, operating from fear and a scarcity mentality—that organization will stay mired in mistrust.

Trust, like tango, takes two. One to trust, another to be trusted. And the roles can flip. It’s often true that “the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

That suggests: if your boss isn’t trustworthy—trust him. Don’t look for a risk management mitigation metric—dive in and trust him.  Embrace the paradox.

This actually works–more often than you might think.  Because most human beings, including most businesspeople, respond favorably to being trusted. They reciprocate. The more genuine the gesture, the more reciprocation.

This feels risky. But despite what Ronald Reagan implied, (trust but verify), there is no trust without risk. The risk taken is what drives the risk reciprocated. Fake-trusting, hedging your bets, installing your safety nets, just inflames the situation.

If you still can’t stomach trusting your untrustworthy boss, then think of it this way. If you avoid your boss–avoid constructively confronting untrustworthy behavior–then you are tacitly accepting it. If you do nothing to mitigate it, you inflame it. Because mistrust is also like tango in taking two: a non-trustworthy person, and someone who avoids confronting him.

If you tolerate untrustworthy behavior, you harm your organization. Which means you are acting against the best interests of your organization. Which means you are as culpable as your boss.

I think this is largely right. Leaders are not solely responsible for trustworthy behavior. Followers have an equal obligation. Their job is to demand trustworthiness, and call it out when it’s not delivered.

A great many leaders would be appalled to find out how feared they really are.  They simply do not have an idea of the effect they are having, and do not intend the results that are resulting.    If told the truth, many of them them would gladly change.

So, who will tell them the simple truth–"Here’s what people are saying.  About you.  And I don’t believe you intend this.  Let’s talk. "  

Try it.  You just might be surprised.

A Contender for Worst Business Advice of 2008

If your customers trust you, that’s good, right? Like, really good?

So suppose you wanted to ruin trust with your customers. What would you do to destroy trust?

• You might try lying to the client.
• You might try saying one thing and doing another.
• You could try keeping secrets from the customer.
• You could refuse to answer direct questions.
• You could actively prevent your customers from learning about cost-saving solutions.

Incredibly, these are specific recommendations made by a business blog, Drooling for Dollars (the name tells you something), in a post titled “A Successful Businessman Keeps Secrets From His Clients.

In this post, the author offers nuggets like “never let a client know your hourly rate,” “tell your client that the work will be completed in 3 weeks although you get it done in 3 days,” and talks about “those irritating and annoying clients who ask too many questions before making a deal.”

It’s good to answer some questions, says the piece–it helps build trust. But don’t go overboard with it—trust could ruin you if those nasty competitors called “customers” find out too much.

The author summarizes: “There are pieces of information you should never reveal to your client, no matter how many times they ask or how much they insist you [sic].”

Uh huh? Really?

Anyone wanna help me shoot some fish in a barrel? The comment section is right below.