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Credibility, Trust and Ignorance

Being right is vastly overrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain a bit further…

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

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

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

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

Misconceptions About Trust – How to Gain Credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You’re So Predictable

On the one hand, it seems the world is getting less predictable. On the other hand, looking at the successes of Big Data and AI, haven’t we all at the same time become more predictable?

Isn’t that how those kids in Macedonia made thousands of dollars running fake articles on social media? Isn’t that how James Corden got famous enough to host the Grammys?

As I thought about this, I remembered that I’d thought about this before. About 11 years ago. Let’s see how 2006 sounds from the vantage point of 2017.

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Fortune talked about recommender systems a few years back.

What’s a recommender system? Well, take Amazon’s “if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love Blink.” Now move from book-to-book relationships into book-to-other relationships: “If you liked the Da Vinci Code, you’ll like a Jura Capressa espresso maker.” That’s a recommender system.

Fortune’s example was www.whattorent.com, helping slackers save time at 10PM Friday night at what was the local Blockbuster by predicting what movie they’ll love. [Remember Blockbuster? Just eleven years ago…]

Fortune interviewed whattorent’s two founders at a coffee shop, and put them to the ultimate test: pick two strangers in this restaurant, and—just by observing them—guess their favorite movie.

They settled on a guy and a young woman. After much clever psycho-babbling, the founders guess: Starship Troopers for Joe, Roman Holiday for Renee.

And wouldn’t ya know it—they were dead right.

You can hear Fortune cuing up the PGA graphic—“these guys are good!” And indeed that’s our reaction—wow, how could anyone pull that off?

But wait. What if we’re mixing up cause and effect? Maybe it’s not that two twenty-somethings are great predictors. What if we’ve just all gotten way more predictable?

Everyone had their favorite Beatle. If you preferred John to Paul, it said something about you—to everyone. Because everyone had a common reference point. The Fab Four were global litmus tests.

Since then, culture got way more global. Africans wear Arizona t-shirts; Valley Girls know Tibetan monk choirs. The weapons of mass dispersion are well known—iPods, MySpace, YouTube, Hollywood [can you believe – this was only 11 years ago…the iPhone was still a year away…]

Everyone wants to be different—but we share referent points from which we diverge. Jeans, music, hair, slang… Take five variables with five values each: five to the fifth power is 3,125 combinations. Sounds like a lot, but it’s based on a small set that’s easy to reverse-engineer.

People don’t predict us: we self-identify, and the code is easy to read. Marketers love this stuff.

Ironically, it also makes it easier to trust others. When a British Stones fan meets a Jagger aficionado from Beijing—the world shrinks.

The question is: can we keep the diversity while enhancing the trust?

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Well, that was my question then. My question now is similar, but updated: can we keep the authenticity while mechanizing the means of connection?

This is most evident in commerce. You still know, in your bones, when you receive a mechanized spam email, trying to pass itself off as personal. I suppose scams may be getting more sophisticated; but a ton of people aren’t even bothering to be sophisticated. They confuse the ability to target and segment with the desirability of doing so. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We’re all pretty predictable. That’s OK. Go ahead, predict me – just let me know there’s someone behind the prediction machine, someone who cares enough to add the whipping cream topping by making it personal.

The difference between being sold to by a person and being sold to by an algorithm is the difference between talking to a person who used a robot to find me, and talking to the robot itself. I don’t mind being predicted – just don’t insult me.

Selling from Inside Your Client’s Shoes

You know the phrase, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s short for empathy, understanding the Other so well you can intuit what it feels like to take a long walk—wearing their footwear, no less.

Let’s adapt that idea to selling. What if you could understand your client so well that you could intuit how it feels to be sitting in their seat in a sales meeting, sensing every nuance along the way?

Shall we give it a try?

Sales Meeting Time T-minus-10

It’s 10 minutes before meeting time. You arrive early, and the receptionist ushers you into the conference room and offers you coffee. You nervously drum your fingers on the laptop you brought to introduce yourself and your firm to Claudio and Taciana. They are CEO and COO, respectively, of the relatively new marketing automation firm C3PX. You spoke by phone with Taciana to set up this meeting. You’re optimistic, marshaling your nervous energy as you mentally rehearse your key points for the nth time.

Claudio. Meanwhile, Claudio wonders if he has time to call his 19-year-old daughter at college. Actually, whether to call her at all. Things are not well between the two of them—they haven’t been since he and his wife divorced last year. Teenage girls can be so—difficult. And it seemed like she so often took sides with her mother.

Meanwhile, C3PX is doing well—sometimes too well. Claudio just signed another line of credit extension. The good news was the firm’s credit was good. The bad news is he wants to pay down some debt, but there was always a need to invest in some new software or process. The meeting in 10 minutes may be another example—a necessary expense, but not welcome in terms of cash flow.

Claudio hopes Taciana can take the lead on this. He’s been leaning a lot on her lately. Is he holding up his end of the bargain? Or is it welcome to her—a chance to grow into the business? But what if she’s growing too fast and taking over some of Claudio’s roles as CEO?

Taciana. Taciana is running late. She’s just finished a meeting with HR, and she is concerned the experienced hire recruiting program is short of target. She wonders if she’ll need to postpone the ops team call this afternoon until tomorrow, though she did that last week as well. Is she getting a little overloaded? Does it show?

Taciana has mixed feelings about this meeting. On one hand, she genuinely liked the phone call she had with you. She felt you sounded sharp, competent, and confident. But she can’t help worrying about your service offering.

Does C3PX really need your kind of service at this point in its growth? You offer some great services, but with them comes another level of complexity. Are the benefits worth it? Should they get along for another 12 to 18 months? What if some new technology comes along and leap-frogs your offering?

Also, is this going to be yet another Taciana-solo project? “Sure, I’m the COO,” she thinks, “but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything. Am I leveraged enough? Will Claudio think I’m empire-building if I try to delegate? But if I don’t, how am I going to get time to spend with my husband? We’ve been trying to get more time together; he has a demanding job, too. I hope Claudio takes the lead in this meeting.”

Sales Meeting Time T = 0

It’s time. You take a last look at your phone just as the door opens. In walk Claudio and Taciana.

You all smile and shake hands, then pass out business cards. You each reject offers of more coffee and strategically settle into your chairs, all the while smiling and uttering meaningless phrases in non-committal tones.

The meeting commences.

Like all meetings, it commences on multiple levels. There is the overt agenda to be discussed. There are first impressions, flooding each of you as you quickly take into account the others’ appearance, sound, bearing, and manner. Are you who they expected? What’s different? What does that mean?

And are they who you expected? What did you misjudge? What did you get right? Can you afford to focus on that and pay attention to what’s being said? Do they seem a little rushed? What does that mean? Are they going to sit through your deck, or should you skip it? When should you bring up price?

You can ask them to tell you a bit about their situation, but you can’t do too much of that. These days no one has time for someone who hasn’t done their homework. Yet neither can you waste time proving you’ve done your homework. What does it mean that they placed their iPhone next to them? And so on.

Behind the Scenes

The internal dialogue is endless—and that’s just yours! What about the dialogue inside Taciana’s and Claudio’s heads? How important is this inner cacophony? And what should you do about it? Ignore it? Address it? If you choose to address it, how do you do it?

The truth is those internal dialogues are not trivial. They are important. You need to address them. Most of all this is a great opportunity cleverly disguised as an awkward social moment. You can dramatically affect the whole sale, and the whole relationship, by how you conduct yourself in the first few minutes regarding these internal dialogues.

Small Talk Isn’t Small

The idle chit-chat we engage in is a potent social ritual. The point is not to find out that you both went to Ohio State or love basketball or have kids. Those are proxies.

The real issue at stake is whether they can trust you—in a very specific sense of that word. It’s what we call “intimacy” in the trust equation. Do they feel safe being who they are in your presence? Do you laugh at the right moments—with the right kind of laugh? Do you wince at the right statements—like when Taciana mentions meeting overload? When they say, “Tell us about yourself,” do you remember that mostly they’re just being nice and then turn the conversation to them?

Do you have the emotional courage to raise your eyebrows when Claudio says, “Teenagers—am I right?” and invite further comment should he choose to go there? When one of them raises price concerns, do you respond with curiosity and say, “Tell me what’s behind that concern?” Or do you reply with a canned defense of your value-for-price? Do you have the nerve to say, “I’m sensing a little bit of stress from each of you. Is this decision a source of concern to you?”

This isn’t about your value proposition. It isn’t about proposing challenging questions or asserting your qualifications. But it’s critical. The buyer/seller interaction is many things, but it’s first and foremost human. First impressions matter, and not just about clothes and looks.

What buyers want is to feel at ease, trusting, and confident they can be authentically themselves with you and not have to look over their shoulders when dealing with you.

Buyers make up their mind about this subconsciously, and they do it very quickly. Trust in this sense doesn’t take time; it takes courage, connection, and empathy. Don’t be afraid to let your guard down. Doing so shows others that can do the same with you from the get-go.

This article first appeared on RainToday.

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

An old business friend told me the other day that the thing he most remembers me saying was, “What problem are we trying to solve?” As he put it, “That little phrase is the key to unfreezing more off-course conversations than any other technique I know of.”

I can’t claim invention. I got it from the United Research side of Gemini Consulting, one of several pieces of clever social engineering they brought to business. Here’s how, and why, it works.

How Business Conversations Go Astray

To hear us tell it after the fact, many business meetings follow a logical flow. They start with an agenda or problem definition, data are then presented, discussions held, and conclusions reached.  Then pigs fly.

It’s not that those individual elements don’t happen – they do. It’s that they happen like a Tower of Babel, randomly and all at once. When everybody’s got an opinion and a vested interest, and nobody’s a designated facilitator – a description of most meetings – we shouldn’t expect much else.

Have you ever been in a planning board meeting?  A condo association meeting? A meeting within your firm’s HR department? An inter-departmental meeting? A sales call with an interested but wary client?

Then you’ve seen the following dysfunctions:

  1. People pursuing their own agendas as sub-text to a given issue
  2. Aimless wandering around various problem definitions
  3. Randomly proposed solutions without grounding
  4. A social struggle for air time
  5. An airing of pet peeves as they manifest in the given issue
  6. A game of dominance and submission playing out in an issue.

And I’m sure there are more. All are forms of incoherence, lacking sequence or structure, generating more frustration from which to feed more incoherence.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

If the root issue is incoherence, then there are several ways to tackle it. You can agree on an agenda. You can enforce sequencing. You can apportion air time.

But one way seems to work better than others. When the babble begins to peak, and the frustration level is palpable, raise your hand, furrow your brow, and ask, genuinely, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

Notice what this simple formulation does.

First, it is socially neutral-to-positive. Logically it has the same effect as saying, “You fools are all over the map – you can’t even define the problem” – but the emotional effect is totally different. You’re not claiming the moral high ground or fighting for your point of view – you’re simply observing a phenomenon, and asking a question.

Second, it’s a very good question. Asking a group to gut-check a problem definition almost immediately elicits an answer – and often it’s the same answer. In which case, collaboration is restored – you all have a common mission again.

And if it’s a different answer, voila, you’ve distilled the essence of the debate – “we have two competing problem definitions, no wonder we were having such difficulties!” In either case, the group becomes re-centered around a dynamic goal – problem definition and resolution, rather than bitching and moaning, or power games.

The net effect of all this is claiming, centering, and norming. A group becomes a group again, with common goals, moving forward, rather than a fractious collection of squabblers.

Give it a try next time you’re in a meeting that’s driving you a little batty – just ask, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”

 

A Better New Year’s Resolution

Ten years have passed since I first wrote the following thoughts on New Years resolutions. Frankly, it was good. And frankly I haven’t been able to write a better one. Next year, maybe.
So, apologies to those who have read it year after year—though I suspect some of you won’t mind.

Happy New Year.
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My unscientific sampling says many people make New Years resolutions, and few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.

You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.

I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.

First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.

In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled.  It can be a very vicious circle.

Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.

Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by begin grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).

Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.

Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.

But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted in the first place.  It was the peace that comes with gratitude.  We mistook cause for effect.

Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest are positive side-effects.

Do We Learn From Our Mistakes? Or Not?

The NYTimes reported a few years back on a Harvard Business School study of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs to test whether or not we learn from our mistakes. The results are confounding to many—including me.

Here’s the story. Several thousand VC-backed companies were studied over 17 years. First-timers had an aggregate success rate of 22% (success meaning going public).

The study is about those trying for a second time. Did the 78% who failed the first time learn from the experience, and do better the second time? Or worse? How did the 22% first-time winners fare—did they get lazy and decline? Or did they somehow do better the second time?

No less an expert than Gordon Moore, sainted ex-leader of Intel and the author of “Moore’s law,” said “You’re more valuable because of the experiences you’ve been through under failures.”

I’m with Gordon. But according to this data, we’re both wrong.

Those who succeeded the first time upped their success rate, to 34%. But those who failed the first time stayed mired in the muck, at 23%. So much for the myth of the gritty, plucky lads who pick themselves up and learn from their failures.

Apparently the data are not the problem: “the data are absolutely clear,” says Paul Gompers, one of the study’s authors. Yet it is still far from clear what the data mean.

As is often the case, data are one thing, and explanation another. Of course, the obvious explanation may be true: people just do not learn from adversity. This seems to be the study’s authors’ view—that the learn-from-failure ethos celebrated in Silicon Valley is really just anecdotal tales over-told.

Then again, maybe we actually do learn more from success than from failure. If so, perhaps that’s because of increased confidence resulting from one win.

Or, maybe only the really good people learn at all. And they can learn from experience alone, whether success or failure.

Or, perhaps these conclusions are only true of a certain type of person, characterized by some cross-cutting characteristic, such as risk tolerance. (Did you know height is correlated with IQ? True: short people score lower on the same IQ tests that tall people take. Of course, if you separate young children from the adults, or use age-normalized tests, the correlation goes away).

Or, to channel a recent 30 Rock storyline, maybe the first time winners are just very good-looking people who are actually horrible, but live in a bubble in which others let them pass. Hey, you never know!

Causal deductions are never fully provable—thanks, Dr. Hume. But progress can be made toward explanations.

So, what do you think’s going on?

And I’ll throw one idea into the ring, borrowed from Karl Popper, who developed the falsifiability theory of meaningfulness. A theory which is highly disprovable, but which remains standing, is superior to a hard-to-disprove theory.

Maybe people who fail have a much greater chance to learn. Why it is that they don’t still seems a mystery to me.

The Cost of Freedom, the Savings of Trust

We don’t usually think of trust and freedom as existing in a trade-off relationship. But in an important sense, they do. Thinking about the two factors this way allows us to view trust from an unusual perspective.

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Kathy Sierra has a great post on the degree to which software designers should design in user freedom – there are limits.

On the face of it, freedom is good. More freedom is better. In fact, if it doesn’t threaten us bodily harm, then more freedom is way better. Isn’t it?

Not so. Sierra offers a 2×2 matrix relating payoff to effort. The payoff is good for things like Amazon. But digital home thermostats and new stereo systems give us too much freedom for the payoff. They’re just a pain.

There is a limit beyond which freedom of choice generates shutdown. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice explores it well. After a while, complexity overwhelms the desirability of choice.

Sierra and Schwartz happen to illustrate the economic relationship between freedom and trust. In a nutshell, we give up freedom of choice in return for more efficient use of our time. We do it with trust.

Branding is the corporate version of trust. Rather than analyze every brand of bottled water, every version of jeans, or every make and model of HD-TV, we abdicate our freedom to do so in return for the security of a brand name. We trust Sony, or Coke, or Amazon, to make acceptably acceptable selections for us—so are freed to make other decisions.

But trust is about more than branding.

The last two centuries of global economic development have been driven by the search for division of labor. Adam Smith’s pin-makers organized around 19 specialized operations; it was far cheaper to assign individuals to distinct operations than to have each operator do all operations.

The transaction cost of coordination was well below the benefits of specialization.

At a corporate level, transaction costs remained high at the turn of the 20th century; early US auto companies made their own tires rather than incur the cost and risk of buying tires from others.

As transaction costs declined, it became more feasible to contract work out – the history of the auto industry is one of moving from integrated manufacturers to contract assemblers.

In recent years, we’ve seen diverging trends: lower unit transaction costs, and higher volumes of transaction costs. The net effect has been driven more by volume than by unit cost. Transaction costs as a percent of GDP have been going up. By one estimate, they now exceed 50% in the US.

We are reminded constantly of the internet’s effect on lowering unit transaction costs; but we don’t notice that the total of such costs is rising.

Here’s what it means: for further economic efficiency, the ability to reduce transaction costs is going to become more critical than further division of labor.

The more technically and globally integrated we get, the more freedom of choice we get. But at some point, freedom of choice becomes overwhelming.

If I want to make and sell jeans, I probably have dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of ways to contract the work out. Past some point, I don’t want more options—I want someone I can trust to make that decision for me.

In other words, I’ll give up freedom in return for lower transaction costs. The currency of that exchange is trust.

In an economy where half the costs are transaction costs, the currency of trust is massively valuable. Think of the transaction costs between auto producers and their suppliers: lawyers, agreements, contracts, specifications, bonus systems, QC, compliance, etc. Suppose they were 100% obliterated by trust. What kind of marketplace cost reduction would that provide?

Trust is not soft stuff. In a world that is getting massively more connected, greater trust has a very real economic role to play.

Giving up freedom for trust can be, paradoxically, a very freeing thing.

Trusting: the Other Side of Trust

Much has been written about trust.  However, it’s often not clear in the writing whether the subject is trust, trustworthiness – or trusting.  If trust in the government is down, does that mean that the government is less trustworthy? Or does it mean that people are less inclined to trust?

Most of my work has been about trustworthiness (e.g. The Trusted Advisor). Other people write more overtly about trusting – a good example is the HBR article ReThinking Trust, by Stanford Professor Rod Kramer, which focuses on the danger of trusting.

Some people write about the big subject of trust itself – the end result of the interaction between trustor and trustee. A fine example is Francis Fukuyama’s classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

Finally, many other sources end up talking about all three; think Covey’s Speed of Trust, or Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.

The Power of Trusting

The sources above are largely academic. In the popular press, by far the most common topics are trustworthiness and the state of trust itself (trust as the result of an interaction between trustor and trustee). Throw a dart into a pile of 100 popular press articles on trust, and you’re likely to find Congress, investment bankers, and the Madoff-du-jour scandal as the subject.

This means most public policy debates focus on trustworthiness.  Most examples are negative; hence trusting is positioned as cautionary, i.e. watch out for car salesmen, lawyers, etc. The moral of the story is tut tut, another untrustworthy group, watch out.

And all this focus on negative examples of trustworthiness is having an effect on people’s inclination to trust. How could it not! And that is a terribly unfortunate thing. Because the scarce trust resource increasingly is not trustworthiness, but the willingness to trust.  We need to start focusing on the trustor, not just on the trustee.

The power of trusting is enormous. When it comes to trust, there is an answer to the chicken and egg dilemma of which comes first, the trustor or the trustee?  The answer is trustor.  Consider:

  • Until one party decides to take a risk and trust another, trust does not come into existence
  • Trusting has a profound impact on trustworthiness – think “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” or “people live up or down to the expectations of them”
  • Trusting is inherently an act of optimism; a decline in trusting in the business world drives down innovation, and prevents collaboration and alliances.

 

Traveling Trust, Reciprocating Trust

I was in Munich for a one-day stopover en route to Bucharest. I left New York a day earlier than planned to avoid some weather. And I realized yet again – travel has a way of doing that – what an extraordinary level of trust we all take for granted in our modern world.

Yes, the news is full of the opposite. Doctors have a hard time trusting pharmaceutical manufacturers. Patients have a hard time trusting their doctors, and doctors have a hard time trusting their patients. Some patients trust the internet more than their doctors, often with bad results. And trust in most institutions is down over time (the military being a notable exception).

A Trusted Trip

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget some basic things. I can freely cross national borders with some mere papers. I can trust the exchange rate when I buy Euros. I can trust the flight controllers that govern the airspace, the airline handling companies that do catering, the bus and taxi systems I encounter.

But most of all, I know I can rely deeply on the basic human decency of people I run into to help with any simple issues – even though we may not speak the same language, and we’ll never see each other again. I can trust that people will give me directions, help me with travel issues, take a moment to help sort out a problem. And I’m almost never, ever wrong in that basic level of trust.

Which motivates me, of course, to try and return the favor whenever I can. And you do the same, I know.

What’s Really Amazing

What’s really amazing is not how often trust goes wrong, but how often it goes right.  Our modern life is unbelievably complex, and yet runs remarkably well.

I don’t want to be Pollyana-ish about this. The fact that trust is so pervasive is precisely the reason we notice and feel trust violations so deeply. We are all right to be deeply offended by untrustworthy behavior; if we lose our capacity to be outraged, we have lost our ability to recover.

Lots of things can be said about lost trust, but I want to highlight one. Trust is reciprocal. My trusting you causes you to trust me, and vice versa. An absence of trust starts with one party. The presence of trust starts with one party. The question facing all of us is, will you be the one to start?  Or will you always insist on the other party going first?

Do you insist on your vendors insuring you against all losses?  Then don’t be surprised when they don’t trust you.  Do you have all your employees sign cutting-edge non-compete clauses?  Then perhaps you can understand why they might seek ways around it.  Do you give lie detector tests to your employees? Then you might gain insight into why you have a shrinkage problem.

You can do your part as an individual too. To be trusted, be trustworthy.  And if you think others are not trustworthy as you – try trusting them first.

For starters, that’ll make your travel a lot easier.

Trust Takes a Long Time to Create, a Short Time to Destroy. Not.

There are two kinds of mistakes we make with trust. One is to trust mistakenly – the other is to fail to trust at all. One is a failure of commission, the other a failure of omission.

The former gets all the press – but it’s the latter that is the bigger problem.

Let me explain.

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One of the bigger myths about trust this one: “Trust takes a long time to create, but only a moment to destroy.” There’s no need to name names here, but you can see examples of it here and here and here and here.

Here’s why that myth isn’t merely annoying, but positively harmful as well.

The Truth.

Let’s start with the truth. Most human relationships, like most emotions, take roughly as long to get over as they took to develop. Marriages or friendships don’t end overnight. There may be a flash point, a straw that breaks the camel’s back. But we cut slack for people we trust. We don’t dump them abruptly.

If trust were lost in a minute, many victims of relationship abuse would leave their abuser at the first incident; but things are often a little more complicated than that.

If trust died quickly, the SEC would have investigated Bernie Madoff when Harry Markopolos first lodged charges against him. If trust died quickly, the steady drip drip drip of evidence at Penn State, Enron, and Wells Fargo would have ended at the first drip.

Most examples of “trust lost quickly” turn out to be either just the last drip in a long series of drips – or a delusion about trust’s existence in the first place (you don’t “violate the trust” of a subscriber to your email list by sending them a worthless referral; the relationship you have with a name on your email list may be many things, but “trust-based” is probably a stretch).

Trust formed quickly can be lost quickly; trust formed at a shallow level can be lost at the same level.  But trust formed deeply, or over time, takes deeper violations, or a longer time, to be lost. The pattern looks more like a standard bell curve than a cliff.

But, you might say, so what?  Why is that harmful? What’s the big deal? 

The Harm.

If you believe that trust can be lost in a moment, then you likely believe you must be cautious and careful about protecting it. You are likely to think about trust as a precious resource to be guarded against being tarnished. You are inclined to institute rules and procedures to protect it and to give cautionary lectures about the risk of losing trust.

Yet these are precisely the kinds of behavior that result in trust lost.

I don’t trust the man who talks with me while pointing a gun at me‬ – partly because he looks threatening to me, but also because he clearly does not trust me.

Trust, at a personal level, is like love and hate: you tend to get back what you put out. You empower what you fear. Those afraid of getting burned are the most likely to get burned.

This works at a corporate level too. I remember vividly the convenience store chain that gave monthly lie detector tests to store managers to prevent theft – and then wondered why the theft kept on happening.

I recently heard from a company wanting to modify the Trust Equation by “toning down” the component called Intimacy to something more bland, like affability or good manners. Why? They didn’t want to be seen as encouraging employees to have sexual liaisons with customers. This falls in the same category with multi-paragraph email signature caveats, and the fine print on retail customer receipts. Fear of trust not only doesn’t save trust – it actually causes low trust.

Trust is a Muscle.

Thinking of trust as something you can lose in a minute makes you cautious and unlikely to take risks. But the absence of risk is what starves trust. There simply is no trust without risk – that’s why they call it trust.

If your people aren’t empowered, if they’re always afraid of being second-guessed, then they will always operate from fear and never take a risk – and as a result, will never be trusted.

Trust is a muscle – it atrophies without use. And the repetition of the mantra “trust can be lost in a moment” just tells people not to use it.

Turns out the stupidest, craziest trust is the trust you never engaged in because you were too afraid of losing it. The smartest trust is the trust you create by taking a risk.