Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Transparency, most of us would agree, is a positive thing.  And disclosure is an obvious way to get there.

But transparency and disclosure are not the same thing. And confusing them can actually harm transparency.

So – 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 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.


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 partial evidence at that. And a wise buyer will always look for the spirit of transparency that may, or may not, underlie the act of disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.


The Problem with Lying

Dilbert on trust and lying:


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?


I’m Just a Soul Whose Intentions Are Good

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good;
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood, by Benjamin, Caldwell, Marcus 

So goes the song (written for Nina Simone, made famous by The Animals). Heaven forbid: Oh lord, please—don’t let me be misunderstood.

Being misunderstood is a terrible thing, we say. My intentions are what’s important, we say—look at my intentions, not at my actions. Then you’ll understand me.

The US criminal justice system, as we’ll forever be reminded from Law & Order reruns, has two parts: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.

At least in the TV version, cops who are interested in understanding intention—intention leads to motive. It helps explain behavior, and leads to discovery.

In the courtroom, the crime is partially defined by intent. Killing someone with intent is generally considered more heinous than killing with no intention to do so. Sentencing, too, is affected by intent, as in ‘he still shows no remorse.’

We fear being misunderstood, of having bad motives attributed to us. Yet we attribute bad motives to others all the time. He has it in for me…he never listens to us…he only cares about getting his own…and so forth.

There is a constant interplay between intent and perception. It’s the territory that’s inhabited by PR firms and political consultants. And it’s that interplay that heavily determines trust, among other things.

Big Oil and Its Intent

While consuming gasoline this weekend in the great American pastime of driving while radio channel-flipping, I heard John Hoffmeister, former president of Shell Oil, respond to a question (I’m paraphrasing here by memory): “If BP really didn’t want a massive spill like this, then how can you explain their failure to have adequate prevention mechanisms in place?”

Hoffmeister then spoke some truth (again, by my memory): “Of course I wasn’t there, but in such situations, it’s often not the equipment—steel is steel—it’s the human, managerial part of the equation that goes wrong.”

It usually is. I sincerely doubt that a single employee of BP wants, desires, intends to spew hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I sincerely doubt that anyone in BP is indifferent to the pain and suffering of living creatures and the ecosystem in coastal Louisiana. Yet those motives and worse are easily attributed to Big Oil. And hardly without reason.

The face of evil is far more mundane than the conspiracy theorists suggest. The excellent Wall Street Journal series  documents, at a micro-level, how good intentions can co-exist with disastrous decisions.

You can also destroy good intentions with an ongoing climate of fear, confusing goals, and conflicting pressures; see David Gebler’s account of unethical behavior.

How Good Intentions Get Subverted

It’s hard to do good from bad intentions. But Eric Burdon’s plea notwithstanding, good intentions not only won’t keep you from being misunderstood, they are impotent in the face of failure to act on them. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions.

What are some of the most common ways in which good intentions go bad? Here are a few.

1. “It’s not illegal.” Those who invoke the law as a way to justify their good intentions are scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel. Laws are simply the extreme version of social sanctions. Their presence means some proscription has gotten so odious that society chose to ossify it in a law. The absence of such ossification is so distant from evidence of good intentions as to be absurd. We rightly shame people who try to make the connection.

2. “It’s our policy.” Variations on the theme include “I was just following orders,” and “that’s just how things work.” At its best, this an evasion of personal responsibility by blaming things on a ‘system.’

3. “I had no choice.” On the face of it, like number 2, but accompanied by an anguished plea of being caught between rocks and hard places—there was no time, everybody was yelling at me to finish the job, it’s been done before…”

It’s a basal human trait to desire to be understood. More evolved human traits include the ability to detach from that desire, and at the same time do things in a ways that ensure good intentions are in fact clear.

How do investment bankers defraud entire nations? How do oil companies poison entire ecosystems? How do companies come to be mistrusted?

One step a time. One small, innocuous, seemingly inconsequential step at a time. The devil may lurk in our hearts, but he lives in the details.

Why People Don’t Trust Trust

In broad terms, what I do for a living is teach (mainly corporate) people to be trustworthy with their business partners, customers and clients.

One of the most frequent objections I get is, “But what you’re suggesting is naïve; it’s too risky, and people will take advantage of you.”
Let me explain why this is a non-sequitur at best, and flat wrong at worst. There are three mistaken assumptions in this claim:

1. Believing that trusting and being trusted are the same
2. Believing you can earn trust without risk
3. Believing that people’s primary instinct is selfishness.

Trust is not symmetrical. To be trusted by someone is not the same thing as trusting someone. When I recommend being trustworthy to my clients, I mean things like admitting when you’re wrong, not fudging your credentials, recommending competitors if they are better for the job, and generally speaking the truth about whatever is going on with you and the other person and the situation at hand.

I have never heard anyone justify lying. But I hear lots of people say they’d never recommend a competitor, or that they’d shade the truth to win a job, or that they’d never acknowledge a situation of discomfort, or call out a dysfunctional client situation. Which as far as I’m concerned means you’re not willing to tell the truth. Which is often only marginally distinct from telling a lie.
But that’s how people talk themselves into not being trusted—that is, by coming up with excuses for not telling very much truth. Which comes across to clients and partners as hiding something. Which makes them distrust you.

Most service providers over-rate credentials and a track record, and underrate the power of telling the truth—all of it. Honesty, transparency, truth-telling, full disclosure—these are the things that lay bare motives, and convince others that nothing is being hidden.

But to the one who would be trusted, these can seem risky steps to take. Admit we made a mistake? Heavens no! They might think we are incompetent; they might be upset; they might fire us; they might not pay the bill. Better to say nothing of it, try to fix things up behind the scenes, and hope they don’t notice it.  But they always notice it. And the coverup is always worse than the crime.

There is no trust without risk. Ronald Reagan’s line “trust but verify” is a rhetorical trick. Trust with verification isn’t trust–it’s more like random drug-testing, which is what happens absent trust.

The one who would be trusted is the one who takes small, initial up front risks—risks of embarrassment, rejection, inadequacy. The one who trusts is the one who generally takes the far bigger, longer-term risk—buying the product, signing the contract.

How silly, then, to risk ruining a large, long-term deal by avoiding a small, short-term deal—out of fear. Yet it happens all the time. We can’t tell them they have a problem in purchasing management—they might be offended. So we’ll just do nothing.

It’s ironic that the largest cause of unwillingness to be trustworthy via truth-telling is the belief that the other party—the one we’d like to trust us—will screw us given the chance.
It has nothing to do with whether people are “good” or “bad,” whether they are or are not out to get you. Those odds vary by industry, geography, and other conditions.

But in almost any population (all right, so maybe Wall Street might be an exception), the willingness to behave at a level of trustworthiness beyond the norm for that population will itself tend to raise the level of trusting as a response. Simply put, people respond to trustworthiness in a reciprocal manner.

If someone behaves in a more trustworthy manner than I am accustomed to—then I am more likely to trust them than I would someone else on average.

What’s so dumb about being trustworthy?


Learnings from the Used Car Salesman

One of the strongest stereotypes in the business world is that of the used car salesman.

Close your eyes for 3 seconds and get a mental image. The odds are very high that:

a. You envisioned a man, not a woman
b. He’s wearing a suit
c. with a plaid pattern
d. with polyester fabric.

The used car salesman generates such antipathy not because of tactics per se, but because of his motives. It’s a great example of a core issue in trust: there isn’t a single behavior or phrase that either guarantees the establishment of trust or its destruction. Everything is colored by intent.

An interesting example of this can be found in a delightful posting called The Used Car Salesman’s Training Manual: 25 Tricks They Use to Charge You More.
(Thanks to Amy Quinn for pointing this out).

If you’re in the car market, it’s a good piece to read before going to dealers. And if you’re a student of trust, it’s a fine list as well. In the 25, for example, you’ll find “limited time offers,” “puppy-dogging,” “highballing,” and “lowballing.”

It’s a great list for raising your defenses.

Interestingly, it’s also a pretty good list for creating trust. Strip out all the negative, value-laden terms, and you’re left with characteristics which can be spun one way or the other—depending on motives.

For example, number 23:

Selling Up: If you’re not specific enough about your sales needs, you may get swindled into purchasing a car that is much more expensive or fancy than you need. After all, this is a salesperson’s job. So be very specific about the year, miles, models and colors you are interested in so you won’t feel motivated to buy something that wasn’t what you really wanted.

Let’s reword this in a way that you might expect to find in a sales training manual.

It might sound like:

Help Customer Determine Needs: If the customer isn’t clear about what kind of car they’re seeking, then you have an opportunity to help them define their needs, and then to identify the type of car that would best fit those needs. After all, this is a salesperson’s job. So don’t go first to specific details about the year, miles, models and colors they are interested in. Instead, learn about their habits, what they like and don’t like about driving, what role a car plays for them, what a car says about them, and what range they are willing to spend. That way you can either improve (or, at the least,validate) their insight into what they want from a car, rather than just being an order-taker for a pre-existing idea that hasn’t been thought through.

Which is right? Precisely what behaviors are different in one scenario vs. the other?

I would argue, not much. In sales, as in other rich human interactions, our intent infuses our words and behaviors.

This argues for high-bandwidth communication: voicemail over email, phone calls over voicemail, and meetings over phone calls.

But most importantly, it reminds us: the best way to be trusted is to actually be trustworthy—worthy of trust.

Do you have your customer’s best interest at heart? Or not?

The answer to that question overrides all the skills-oriented approaches you might learn.

Soliciting Customer Service Feedback: Motives Matter

Ginger Conlon, over at The 1 to 1 Blog,  writes about an excellent midtown New York meal tainted by a flawed customer service feedback process.

When the check arrived it came with two comment cards, encouraging our feedback. [But] the only way to give your feedback was to give the card back to the server. I could walk up and hand it to the host; but perhaps I would like to have mailed it in? There was no address (or email address)…

… if I was to have given negative feedback (I didn’t, the food and service were terrific) and drop that card back in with the check, what’s to stop the server from tossing it in the trash? If this restaurant, or any other establishment, really wants feedback – good or bad – it should make it easy and comfortable to give it.

In this particular case, I think the comment card was really more of a way to get satisfied customers to opt in to the company’s email list.

Agreed, Ginger, and let me pile on.  Not only is this a bad service evaluation process; it also ruined your dining experience (badly enough that you’re blogging about it, and I’m amplifying it).  It made you think about:

a. a mildly uncomfortable and totally unnecessary interaction;
b. the possibilty of gaming the system
c. the (possibly nefarious) motives of the restaurant.

And the worst of these is the last.

Let’s go from bad to worse, to worst.

Bad:  when was the last time you filled out a paper service evaluation form at a hotel, airline, restaurant? Probably only when something went really wrong?  Data quality with such low and skewed participation rates is low.

Worse: such low participation rates cause cynicism in customers and employees alike. Bad data can’t support quality decisions.

But the worst—bad motives—can sound very much like good service improvement theory. The theory goes:

• Carefully measure what’s wrong
• Figure out the desired new behaviors
• Reward people on the basis of improved data.

This is management 101, right?  Tell people what you want, then reward them for doing it.  (It’s also Pavlov 101 and Skinner 101, but never mind…)

Unfortunately, when you put such weight on the rewards, you can ruin the motivation for good service. It becomes about money, not pride.

The really good waiters, servers, etc. know how to subordinate the goals to the process—they succeed in spite of, not because of, those following service improvement theory.

But its worst, this approach produces begging. “May I put you down as having received excellent customer service on this call?”  Try saying “no” next time and see what happens.

Here’s what happened with me.

CSR: May I say I provided excellent customer service for you today?
ME: No.
CSR: But—what did I do wrong?
ME: You didn’t do anything wrong, but you weren’t able to solve my problem.
CSR: (Sputtering) But, that wasn’t my fault; it’s the system.
ME: Whatever.  I still didn’t get my problem solved, so I didn’t receive “excellent customer service.”
CSR: But I tried.
ME: Thank you. But is this about your trying, or about my results?
CSR: But this could hurt my ratings and cost me!

This is a bad customer service feedback process, providing bad data.  It ruins the service as well.  And it creates cynicism about bad motives.

But when it turns decent employees into pathetic beggars—abjectly beseeching the very customers they are supposed to be serving—then the process has achieved something truly twisted and dehumanizing.

And all in the name of measurement and reward.

Hey Ginger—any reason not to provide the name of the restaurant?  It’ll be our little blow for improved service analysis.