Making Excuses To Strangers Is A Sign Of Self-Orientation

Earlier this week, I wrote about the critical role played in the Trust Equation by the factor of Self-Orientation.   The brief version is:

The biggest killer of trustworthiness is high self-orientation – a tendency to focus too much on ourselves.

That’s the theory. Now let’s have fun with some examples.

With a tip o’ the hat to Jeff Foxworthy, who invented this peculiarly American quasi-haiku format:

·    If you find yourself making excuses to a stranger for something a good friend would have forgotten about days ago – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you lose more than 45 minutes of sleep re-running what you should have said in that conversation – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you go from thinking you’re the greatest to thinking you are worthless – and back again – within two minutes – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you apologize more than three times for something pretty trivial – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you are pretty sure that that song really was about you – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you immediately lose interest in a potential customer when it appears they won’t buy this month – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If it bothers you that probably no song will ever be about you – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you take great pride in beating your grandmother at Scrabble (and you’re over 20, and she’s over 80) – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you are presenting to a client, and the client disagrees about an issue, and your pulse rate goes up 20 points – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you’re worried that everyone’s always talking about you – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If it worries you that no one is ever talking about you – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If someone suggests a change in something you did, and you respond by explaining why you did it — three times in a row – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you think, “wow, I just did the same thing last month” constitutes empathy – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If a potential client says, “your prices are too high,” and it makes you feel attacked or angry – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you think self-flagellation is a virtue – you might be highly self-oriented.

·    If you were in charge of the company picnic and it rained, and you feel guilty – you might be highly self-oriented.

Here’s a hint. Your job is to do the best you can to help others—and to give up control over the outcome. An expectation on your part is just a pre-meditated resentment.

Is Self-Orientation Killing Your Trustworthiness

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





TQ        = Trustworthiness

C            = Credility

R            = Reliability

I            = Intimacy

S            = Self-Orientation

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

Let me explain this further.

Self-Orientation Is About Where Your Attention is Focused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

To for continued reading check out: Trusting your colleagues will make you more trustworthy to your customers

Does This Make My “S” Look Big? True Customer Focus

I’ve led dozens of learning programs on being a Trusted Advisor.  One thing I’ve learned: without a doubt, the most popular element of the Trust Equation is Self-Orientation.

By “popular,” I mean it’s the one most people identify as a huge opportunity for improvement. Which makes sense, since it’s deliberately placed in the denominator to highlight its ubiquitousness.

Simply defined, self-orientation is about focus. If someone says about you, “I trust that she cares about _______” and fills in the blank with something that relates to them, then your “S” is little. And that’s good.  (“I trust that she cares about how this project will impact my career”; “I trust that she cares about what’s best for the team”; “I trust that she cares about our reputation.”)

Alternatively, if the words that complete the sentence relate to you in any way shape, or form, then you’ve officially got a Big “S.” And that’s bad. 

We all know the stereotypical used car salesman – a classic “Big S” caricature. He’s disingenuous, in it for himself, armed and ready with manipulative tactics to get you to do what he wants. As I’ve come to better understand what “S” is all about, I’ve come to appreciate its subtlety. In reality, self-orientation sneaks into our interactions with others in more insidious ways. This means keeping it small can be challenging.

Think of self-orientation as referring to two levels of focus: results and needs.

High Self-Orientation Level 1: Results

Most of us are pretty clear about the results dimension–the more obvious of the two. We generally know what we should be doing to be other-focused in this regard. “Little S” strategies include:

asking lots and lots of questions from a place of curiosity to figure out what success really looks like

negotiating for true win-win,

doing the right thing, even if you’re incented otherwise. The latter includes the provocative notion of referring a client to a competitor if the competitor could do better for the customer.

“Big S” results behaviors (the bad ones, remember) include rushing to a solution, making a bad first deal, or “hoarding”—time, resources, ideas. “Gigantic S” equals stereotypical used car guy.

High Self-Orientation Level 2: Needs 

The other dimension of self-orientation is needs.The question here is whether or not you’re focused on your needs–or on theirs.

For example:

–          Are you focused on your need to look smart (and so you invoke Death by PowerPoint … or simply talk a lot) or are you focused on their need to be heard (therefore you listen without distraction, even when it’s uncomfortable to be silent for what feels like a long time)?

–          Are you focused on your need to be liked (hence you avoid confrontation—sometimes or always) or their need to have all the data required to make good decisions (meaning you’re consistently willing to speak a hard truth if it’s necessary, even when it feels awkward to do it)?

–          Are you focused on your need to be the hero (so you subtly compete for attention or recognition) or are you focused on their need to feel confident (meaning you check your ego at the door and give them the credit)?

I chose these three examples because they’re the ones I struggle with the most. Even though my “S” scores on the Trust Quotient are actually pretty low, I’m well aware of my own quirks and foibles and I work every day to manage them—sometimes with greater success than others.

What Makes My “S” Look Big? Being Human

Self-orientation rears its ugly head most often when we feel some sort of fear—fear of looking bad, fear of rejection, fear of loss. All of these fears fall into the category of perfectly normal. And they’re what make your “S” look big.

What makes a difference is having the ego strength to see it, acknowledge it, to “get off your ‘S’,” and move on.   After all, obsessing about “Big S” mistakes is just more … “Big S.”

Ah, the joys of being human.

When a Win-Win…Is Not

Special thanks to Noelle who participated in a Being a Trusted Advisor program Charlie and I led recently. Noelle told a similar story in class that was the inspiration for this post.

I had an experience with US Airways recently that shed light on the difference between what I’ll call a Sears Win-Win* and a Real Win-Win. In short, the difference boils down to incentives.

The Story of an On-Time Departure

It seems that US Airways is placing a lot of emphasis on on-time departures these days.  Works for me! As I was getting settled on a recent flight, I noticed that the flight attendant working my section was particularly smiley and up-beat, urging everyone to get buckled up and ready to go in a most effervescent way.

I acknowledged her demeanor as she paused near my row. "We’re working hard for an on-time departure today and it looks like we’re going to make it!" she beamed.

"Wow," I said, a bit taken aback by the commitment and the positivity.

Then she added, "And there’s $50 in it for me if we leave the gate on time!"

(Apparently, US Airways implemented a new program in 2009 where employees below the director level can earn up to $150 per month in incentive pay when they achieve top-three rankings for on-time performance, mishandled baggage reports or customer complaint numbers.)

"Oh," I said.

And then we left on time…and arrived on time.

Why Motives Matter

On the surface, this sure looks like a win-win: I won because we left and arrived on time; the flight attendant won because she got her bonus. The corporate incentive program worked! Or did it?

I say it didn’t. Not really. It clearly achieved a desirable result (me arriving on time). And that result came with–what’s the word I’m looking for–baggage (me feeling like chopped liver). Which is why I call this a Sears Win-Win, not a Real Win-Win. If we look throught the lens of the Trust Equation, my friendly flight attendant’s Self Orientation was sky high. And therein lies the problem: the source of her interest was her own benefit, not mine.

How Do We Make the Ending Happy?

Here are some conclusions I draw from this story:

  • Incentives are great. And they’re not enough
  • When one or more parties in a business transaction leaves that transaction without feeling cared about, it’s a loss, not a win.
  • Motives aren’t only spoken; they’re exuded
  • Real Win-Win’s are motivated by caring, not by numbers.

Which begs the question, how do you incent–and incite–someone to care?

Any answers out there?

*Reference courtesy of Frank Zappa

Was It Something I Said? The Trap of High Self-Orientation

It happened again yesterday. It happens about once a week, though I don’t generally notice it until later.

I had a proposal phone call with a potential client. It went well, but they came back a few days later with a concern. I responded at length in an email. The day ended. Another day passed. By then, it had begun to happen.

I started thinking, “Was it something I said? I’ve probably blown it. I knew I should have done X, I shouldn’t have done Y. On the other hand, maybe I should have…” and so on. You probably know how it goes.

I once kept track of these episodes for a month. There were ten of them in that month. And in 9 out of the 10 cases, the result was: the other person was just busy, that’s all. They weren’t thinking those negative things about me, in fact quite the contrary.

9 out of 10 times I was wrong. And not just about what they were thinking, but about how much time they spent on it.

Self-Orientation in Trust

The denominator in the Trust Equation is self-orientation (the numerator factors are credibility, reliability and intimacy). The higher your self-orientation, the lower your trustworthiness. The logic is simple: if you’re paying attention to the other person (client, customer, friend, spouse, whatever), then you’re probably interested in them, care about them, and have some positive intent toward them.

By contrast, if your attention is devoted inward, you will not be trusted. Why should you be? You’re obsessed with yourself. We trust people who appear to care, and who demonstrate that caring by paying attention. He who pays attention largely to himself is not the stuff of trusted advisors. (Note: you can take your own Trust Quotient quiz at the upper right of this page.)

Get Off Your S

For those of us who need catch-phrases to remember (count me in), here’s one: Get Off Your S. That is, stop being so self-oriented.

Here’s the psychology of it. You’re not as good as you think you are, you’re not as bad as you think you are–you just think more about yourself than others think about you. To live between your ears is to live in enemy territory. You empower what you fear. If you have a foot in yesterday and one in tomorrow, you’re set to pee on today. Blame is captivity. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Here’s the spirituality of it. To give is more blessed than to receive. To get what you want, focus on getting others what they want. Treat others as you’d wish they’d treat you. Pay it forward. Put change in a stranger’s parking meter. Do a good deed a day. Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking of yourself less. Fear is lack of faith.

Here’s the business of it. Never Eat Alone. Listen before making recommendations. To get tweets, give tweets. Inbound marketing not outbound marketing. Customer focus. Customer service. Samples selling.


Oh, and my potential client? They were just busy. They’re going to buy, they always were.

It’s not about you. It never is.