Why We Don’t Trust Companies Part IV: The Solution

Solving The PuzzleMy last three posts – here, and here, and here – were about why we don’t trust companies. To review the bidding, I’ve said it’s because:

  • Trust is predominantly personal in nature – a fact most companies don’t recognize
  • Corporate missions, motives and mindsets are all tainted by zero-sum, competitive ideologies
  • Trust requires risk, while companies abhor risk.

Stripped down – companies see trust as impersonal, ideologically suspect, and too risky.

Now, if I am right about that, then we would want to see solutions in the business world that recognize the personal nature of trust, incorporate trust-enhancing ideologies, and embrace risk-taking to enhance trust.

Surprise surprise – that’s not what we see.

The dialogue about corporate trust is consistently mis-framed. It is not companies that trust, or are trusted. It is the people in the companies who trust, or are trusted. The challenge is not to make companies trust or be trustworthy – it is to create corporate environments in which people can trust and be trusted.

In the trust game, the company is an agent, an enabler – not a primary actor.

The Usual Recommendations to Increase Corporate Trust

I spend a lot of time reading reports on how trust in business can be improved. Here are a few examples;

Believe me, there are hundreds more.

These are all reasonably good pieces of work (there are certainly worse). But even from these top-drawer sources, the top-line recommendations are bloodless, abstract, and cold – because they’re focused at the corporate level. (Curiously, the right answers in all four of these cases are in fact contained in the reports – they’re just buried deep.)

Typical topline recommendations look like these (taken from the sources above):

  • Increase adherence to ethical codes and standards
  • Create a set of values that define and clarify what your enterprise and its people are at root, and work to ensure that these values are adhered to consistently across your enterprise.
  • A well-defined, repeatable roadmap for the conversation…more transparency about fees and costs
  • Communicate frequently and honestly on the state of the business.

Again – there’s nothing wrong in these recommendations. But taken alone, they are sleep-inducing; they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s Mwah, Mwah, Mwah.

Where is the personal? The belief system? The risk-taking? Where’s the people?

The Right Answer for Increasing Corporate Trust

Again, not that there’s anything wrong with the suggestions above, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. Here are some recommendations that do.

1. Trust is personal – so lead by example.

Role model it. Everyone, not just the top leaders.  And to be sure what “it” is, identify hundreds of situations and the appropriate responses for each (not to memorize, but to ensure understanding). Talk about them – endlessly.  Get coaching. Do brainstorming sessions. Talk about what you’re doing with employees, and with customers. Identify key vocabulary terms you’ll use, and use them. Publicly praise and private counsel appropriate personal examples of trust-based interactions.

The way to get a trust-based company is not to fix the company – it’s to fix the people and the environment they live in so that the people can trust and be trusted in all their affairs.

2. Articulate and preach the trust ideology.

Reject zero-sum thinking. Think long-term relationships, not short-term transactions. Make transparency a default state in all conversations (except where illegal or harmful). Emphasize win-win solutions with customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Believe that trust relationships are more profitable over the medium and long-term, that they are complementary not opposed to corporate success.

3. Teach Social Risk-taking

People can’t learn to trust if they have no degrees of freedom to do so. People are more likely to be trustworthy if they are trusted. Human relationships are formed by the constant reciprocal taking of small risks; the result is long term risk mitigation.

There are personal relationship skills that drive trust. They can be taught, and the teaching of them gets to the heart of a trust-enhancing organization.


The route to a high-trust organization is through its people. That route starts not with corporate policies per se, but with human interactions.



Why We Don’t Trust Companies, Part III – Risk

Take the RiskThis is the third in a four-part series about why we don’t trust companies. The final post will offer solutions.

In the first and second posts, I said trust in companies is so low because companies don’t understand the personal nature of trust, and because they hold various beliefs that seem at odds with trust.  Call those drivers “ignorance” and “ideology.”

[Note: ignorance and ideology are not the reasons commonly cited for low corporate trust. The usual suspects include lack of regulation, conflict of interest, perverse incentives, lax enforcement, and greed].

There is one more big issue that affects our distrust of companies – the issue of risk. Risk is fundamental to both corporations and to human trust, but their views on the subject are diametrically opposed.

Trust absolutely requires risk, while corporations abhor it. The conflict between these two views explains quite a bit.

Risk and Trust

There simply is no trust without risk, almost by definition. To trust another is to willfully put oneself in harm’s way. The act of trusting lies somewhere between one extreme of cold calculation of odds, and the other extreme of blind faith.

Contrary to what Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “trust but verify” is an oxymoron. If you have to verify, it isn’t trust; and the act of verification tends to negate trust.

Risk plays a critical role between the two parties of a trust relationship. The trustor is the one taking the risk, the one who puts himself in harm’s way. The trustee is the one who is granted the power by virtue of the trustor’s risk. How he responds is critical to the establishment of trust.

This dance of risk-taking is the essence of human relationships. I extend my hand, and you either extend yours back to me, or turn on your heel and spurn me. Romantic relationships are established by an elaborate ritual of progressive risk-taking and positive responses. So it is with trust.

Trust is a bilateral, asymmetric relationship – risk is the medium of exchange. A trusting relationship can mitigate larger risks, but it almost always begins with a small risk taken.

Risk and Companies

By contrast, corporations abhor risk. In a zero-sum, Hobbesian, sustainable-competitive-advantage world (see part II of this series), to put oneself in harm’s way of another is simply irrational, if not suicidal.

[Note: I’m not talking here about risk in financial markets – alpha and beta, hedging, risk appetite – those are design features of a product being sold.]

This negative attitude toward risk is pervasive. It’s at the root of business insurance contracts, legal reviews, communications approval processes, and a great many policies and procedures.

I recently heard of someone in the reputation management business who said they’d gotten inquiries from people and from companies alike in times of crisis. But, when they heard that his recommendations included an apology, all the corporate inquiries dropped off. Only individuals were willing to consider reputation repair that included  apologies.

The reason is clear: to apologize looks like an admission of guilt. An admission of guilt opens up a corporation to civil lawsuits. Almost all companies will view such a situation in strictly legal terms, and the “right” answer is the one that limits risks. Ergo, no apology.

This dichotomy makes sense because humans relate to apologies – to apologize is a form of risk-taking that can help restore trust. Corporations, not being human (see Part I), see apologizing in strictly legal, non-human terms. For people, apologies are about character and reputation; for corporations, they’re about threats and survival.

We as humans want truth-telling and accountability in order to trust. But companies tend to resist telling the truth or taking accountability if it puts them legally at risk.

When you have different perspectives on truth and accountability, you have a very wide divide. One more reason we don’t trust companies – they don’t usually behave by the “rules” of trust, which is (see Part I) predominantly human.


The final part in this series will move from the negative to the positive, and offer solutions.






Why We Don’t Trust Companies, Part II – the Three M’s

light bulb: Mission, Motives & MindsetsYesterday I wrote about three fundamental reasons that most companies aren’t trusted: trust is mainly personal, most companies don’t understand trust, and they make bad choices of tools to enhance trust. Let’s call that Level I of  the Corporate Book of Being Trusted. Now let’s look at Level II.

Most companies, even if they do reasonably well at Level 1, are still not very trusted. It’s often due to what we might call the three M’s – mission, motives and mindset. If your goals, beliefs and attitudes are all anti-trust – even if you think you mean well – then no matter what you say, it will bleed through. People can tell. And it’s people that do the trusting.


I’m using the term “mission” loosely here, to include terms sometimes defined as distinct – vision, goals, and the like. Basically, what a company says it’s trying to do.

And despite the ringing statements of companies like Coca Cola (“…to inspire moments of optimism and happiness…”) and Enron (you really must read it for yourself), most companies in the past few decades would cop to “achieve sustainable competitive advantage,” (often dressed up as “be the best X in the Y business”).

Sustainable competitive advantage. Never mind whether that’s true, or whether the true underlying motive is to maintain the bureaucracy until the incumbent management has had its way. Let’s assume it is true. What does “sustainable competitive advantage” (hereafter, SCA) imply?

It says above all that business is a contest, and a largely zero-sum contest at that. It’s about winning, and what I win, I win by dint of you losing. And vice versa. As was very well articulated by the strategists from the 70s and 80s, this is a Hobbesian view, in which everyone is a competitor lying in wait to conquer us. And so we must conquer them first.

Much more could be said about this as a mission, but let’s stick with one observation – it is extremely hard to believe in all that and believe at the same time in the power and desirability of trust. People who believe in SCA are hard-pressed to believe that they might make alliances with suppliers, customers and even competitors, that they might benefit by greater transparency, that taking risks can be desirable, and that another goal besides winning might actually exist.

Most corporate people  just can’t wrap their heads around that.  And so they, and their companies, behave in anti-trust ways.

(There is, of course, a great irony here. Companies which actually do a better job of being trusted end up being more profitable and successful. But the power of the ideology is such that most corporations refuse to believe it).


It’s almost an axiom in business that the purpose of a company is to make a profit. And even though few people now believe it as dogmatically as Milton Friedman asserted it’s pretty much an important goal, and rightly so. The problem comes from those who have boiled it down, stripped it to the bones, and turned it into Management Mantras Lite.

They have put a lot of emphasis on two beliefs: the primacy of shareholder value, and the short term perspective. As to shareholder value, Cornell Law School Professor Lynn Stout says, “the ideology of shareholder value maximization lacks any solid foundation in corporate law, corporate economics, or the empirical evidence.” So the belief is unnecessary, and unfounded. Yet it continues.

It is also anti-trust, because it subordinates the goals and desires of all other stakeholders.  Who can trust an entity that uses others as means to its own ends – and brags about it!

Short-termism is a long topic in itself. Let’s just note that the passage of time is a requirement for many forms of trust. Game theory shows distinctly different results if a game is played once, vs. many times. Over time, we can establish patterns, mutual obligations, track records and character.

Short-termism hobbles trust considerably; the accompanying belief in transactions rather than relationships is enough to strangle trust.


Some mindsets flow naturally from the missions and motives outlined above; see how many you have heard:

  • I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone – do the deal
  • Do unto others before they do unto you
  • It’s a dog eat dog world.

There is one other mindset I want to identify; I’ll write about it separately in this series. It is risk. In the Hobbesian corporate world we have created, risk is a no-no, a negative, something to be mitigated and hedged. Risks are to be laid off, written into supplier contracts so they’re transferred, and are not to be taken if they might result in legal or financial exposure – hence never admit guilt. Hence “nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.” And so forth.

Yet trust requires risk. There can be no trust without risk. And a mindset that abhors risk is not a mindset that will easily tolerate trust.


In short: at Level I, we saw that most companies are impersonal, and don’t understand the workings of trust. At Level II, we see that many mental constructs in today’s corporations are inimical to trust.

Is it any wonder that most companies are not trusted?


Why We Don’t Trust Companies Part I

"Trust Me" (photo by Nancy Xu)People don’t trust companies very much.

Sure, we trust some companies more than others, and sometimes we trust them more than government (sometimes not), but when you think of someone you trust, a corporation tends not to come first to mind.

There are three simple, powerful, obvious reasons for this – every one of which tends to get ignored by corporations. Who then wonder why they’re not trusted.

Reason 1: Trust is Heavily Personal

Very few companies bother to make a simple distinction – that between trusting and being trusted. It takes both to create trust.

Only people can do trusting. To trust another is an act of will, not of policy or odds-making. Corporations, notwithstanding what Mitt Romney and the US Supreme Court ruled, cannot in any intelligible manner be said to “trust” others. It’s a human thing.  So right there, half of trust can only be done by humans.

The other half, trustworthiness, also applies largely to humans. We might say, “I trust the sun will rise tomorrow,” but when it does, you don’t get much credit for your courageous risk-taking. You may trust Amazon to predict your book preferences, but that doesn’t mean you’d trust Amazon to make sales calls for you or set you up on a date.

Trust is hugely contextual, and the few contexts in which we “trust” a company tend to be very bloodless, relying largely on predictability of behavior. And it doesn’t run deep.

Trust is personal, and companies aren’t. Sorry, companies.

Reason 2: Companies Don’t Understand Trust

I noted above that companies rarely distinguish between something as basic as trusting and being trusted. Therefore, if they score low on trust surveys, they can’t tell whether the solution lies in being more trustworthy, or in being more trusting.

By default, most of them implicitly assume the issue is trustworthiness. This means they completely pass up opportunities to create trust by trusting their stakeholder constituencies, or by valuing the propensity to trust within the organization. Worse, they may even harm trustworthiness by assuming that it requires greater internal controls, thus limiting employees’ ability to be trusting.

Trust is contextual, and companies tend to be very vague about it. Sorry, companies.

Reason 3: Companies Choose Trust Tools Badly

Most companies confuse trust with reputation. They view it as a communications problem, something to be handled by PR, especially in times of crisis. Trust problems are addressed by amping up the messaging.

Most companies, if they think about increasing trust, will instantly phrase the issue in terms of measurement.  How do you measure it, what metrics can be developed to track it, and how do we manage to the metrics?

Most companies, to go along with their metrics, favor processes and policies as a way of increasing trust. We will review this 4 times, no Xs will go out without Ys, we celebrate Q and we will not tolerate Z.

But trust doesn’t work that way. Since trust is personal, it is transmitted largely through character, role-modeling, values, conversations, personal transparency, integrity, constructive confrontation, public praise and shaming, and mutual respect. How many corporate programs can you identify that use those as tools?

The one communications policy that positively affects trust is transparency; yet it is often sacrificed for message control, which predictably reduces trust. Reputation doesn’t drive trust – trust drives reputation, in any sensible time-frame past a fiscal quarter or two.

The measurement of trust is simply not as important an issue as companies make it out to be. We don’t measure love, and love seems to do fine without it; in fact we would be suspicious of people who purport to be able to measure love, much less do it quarterly, monthly and weekly. You do not need to measure trust in order to manage with it – see the list above of how it works.

Finally, policies and procedures are inherently impersonal. Other than creating greater predictability, is it any wonder they don’t affect trust? In fact, if you get enough policies and procedures, it makes everyone confuse compliance with ethics, and you end up with reduced trust.

There are many reasons we might not trust a company, or companies in general. But the biggest reasons are because we’ve defined the problem wrongly at the very outset.

Know Yourself. Wait, what does that even mean?

"To Thy Own Self Be True"In college, I majored in philosophy. I underlined all the important parts in my texbooks – the hard, the empirical, the deductive, the categorical. I underlined about half of each  book. What I skipped over were the soft and squishy parts: know thyself, be virtuous, metaphysics, that kind of thing.

Years later I deigned to go to the School for Practical Philosophy. After a class or two, I realized it was powerful stuff. I also realized it was about the other half of the book – all the things I hadn’t underlined.

I still eschew the metaphysics stuff in favor of David Hume, but I have become a complete convert on the subject of Know Thyself.

In fact, self-knowledge is one of the five trust skills that my co-author Andrea Howe and I describe in the Trusted Advisor FieldBook. In fact, it’s the capstone skill of the five skills we describe in that book, as well as in our workshop program Trust-based Leadership.

If “know yourself” strikes you as squishy, soft, fuzzy, left coast suburban buddhist hippie-talk homilies – like it used to strike me – then let me break it down and toughen it up for you. Because when you get it, it’s a lot tougher than the analytical subject-mastery behavioral neuro-babble that is too often celebrated in business today.

Know yourself means four things.

  1. To know yourself, you have to be able to see yourself objectively. The “you” that knows yourself cannot be the same as the “self” that you know. If you can’t do this, you’re doomed to always just doing and feeling the stuff that you always did and felt. You can’t do anything about it if you’re always in it.  (Hang on, I’ll tell you how later).
  2. If you know yourself, then you know what makes you the same as, and different from, the other 7.091 billion humanoids on the planet. And you are more same than different. Get over your terminal uniqueness. You are better than some billions, worse than other billions, on billions of continua. You fall into the broad middle billions of humanity. You ain’t all that.
  3. Seeing who you are and recognizing your right-sized place in humanity, you can now find freedom. You don’t owe anybody anything, nobody owes you anything. Everything is a gift, or nothing at all. You make your own luck, you create your own suck. Your life is what you make of it, nothing more, nothing less. Success is heavily an inside job –  happiness, completely.
  4. Once free, you can decide what to do with your freedom. Since you no longer need anything, you are free to give, and to make the world a better place. And the collateral damage of doing good is that you get good back in return.

Because the universe has a way of paying you back.  I’m not talking about metaphysics and karma, I’m talking human nature. Way more often than not, people return good for good and evil for evil. By leading with good, you greatly increase the odds of receiving good. It’s not a cosmic principle thing – it’s just how people work. That’s concrete.

And it’s a powerful enough rule that you can make book on it – and do business based on it. It’s not guaranteed in every situation, instance or transaction – but it is ironclad in the long run across multiple events.

What Good is Knowing Yourself?

You mean, besides making you happy and free and attractive to other people?  Well, OK, here’s just one concrete specific item.

You know how sometimes you find out that someone thinks way more highly of you than you thought they did? Or that they think much worse of you? Either way, you know the shock when you discover the disconnect?

Knowing yourself prevents those shocks, because there’s no disconnect. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By knowing who you are and aren’t, you can maximize your potential. You don’t cause friction, waste and slippage by under- or over-shooting, or by seeking more or less from others than you should. When you know who you are, you can calibrate exactly what impact you will create in any given situation – no more guessing, wishing, hoping. That is empowering.

How Am I Supposed to Do This?

I know, I know – how do you do this stuff? Where’s the tips and tricks, top ten lists, business processes and metrics that you need to do things?

Andrea and I give you three concrete actions to take in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. They are:

  1. Look inward – basically, introspection. Lots of ways to do that. Write it down and share with others as you discover.
  2. Convert blind spots to insights – get feedback. Simple. Just go ask for it.
  3. Experiment – create learning opportunities. Put money where mouth is. Try stuff; evaluate; recalibrate; try again.

You can break each one down further – into processes, timeframes, sequences, metrics and milestones – if that’s your preferred style. Or, you can just swim in it. Both ways will work.

One last thing about knowing yourself. It’s not a step function, it’s incremental. You can always get better, and as you do, you reap the benefits at the same time. It’s a progressive thing. And anytime is a good time to start.

So You Don’t Have Time to Be a Trusted Advisor?

Build Trust In No TimeOne of the more frequent comments I get in talking about being a trusted advisor is this:

“We’d love to practice all the things you talk about, Charlie, we agree with them all.  But, we just don’t have the luxury of the kind of time it takes to get there. There are too many other demands, and we just can’t spare that kind of time.”

True or False: It takes more time to be a true trusted advisor than it takes to do just a very good job of service delivery.

Just to be clear where I stand: that statement is as false as a three dollar bill.

Trust Doesn’t Necessarily Take Time

First of all, the old truism that “trust takes time” isn’t necessarily true. Only one of the four trust equation components necessarily takes time, and that’s reliability – because by definition reliability requires a track record.

The other trustworthiness components – credibility, intimacy, and low self-orientation – can be, and often are, assessed in a few moments.  We all form very strong first impressions of people about whether they are truthful, competent, paying attention to us, of high integrity, and so forth.  Furthermore, we’re generally pretty right in those impressions, or at least we tend not to modify them greatly.

But that’s only about a single instance of trust establishment. Let’s look at trust over time.

Trust Saves Time

The fact that trust can be established quickly is only the beginning. What happens after trust is established?

Most would agree that having a trusting relationship means that things go more quickly from then on; your word is taken as bond; your advice is heeded; processes proceed more quickly; there is less double-checking, and so forth.

So, do the math. Let’s say you’ve got ten interactions with a client, and in the first one, you establish a great deal of trust. The next 9 interactions will proceed more quickly, with deeper results, than if you did the dance of distrust every time you interacted. The aggregate amount of time spent is almost certainly less, not more, in the trustworthy case.  Trust doesn’t require more time, trust saves time.

In other words, even if trust took time up front, the investment is more than paid off in future interactions by a host of benefits. But even that’s not the end.

It’s Trust Quality, not Quantity, that Counts

If you had to invest time to create trust, the ROI created would typically be very positive; it drives lower costs of sales, better time to market, and so forth. But you don’t have to invest much time. Not if you are qualitatively excellent.

Imagine two equally competent and good-willed professionals.  Over the same period of time, one does high quality client work, displays excellence, and offers good value.  The other one does the same – but in addition, becomes highly trusted. If time were the only variable, then this scenario makes no sense – given equal time and equal everything else, they should be equally trusted.

But we all know that scenario is actually quite common – one professional is frequently more trusted than another, often with even less time invested. Why is that?  What are those highly trusted people doing?  Ask yourself that question about the highly trustworthy professionals you know.

Let me suggest they don’t get there by logging more hours – they get there by higher quality trust creation. They are authentic. They take emotional risks. They pay attention. They don’t focus on driving clients toward their own desired outcomes. They go where the conversation takes them. They freely admit their blank spots. Their goal is client service, not account profitability. Their highest calling is to make things better for the client.

They are fearless, humble, generous, curious, and other-oriented.  Those are the qualities that make them trustworthy – not how many basketball games they took the client to.

You don’t have the time to be a trusted advisor? In the aggregate, there may be a positive correlation between high-trust relationships and time spent, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that time caused the trust. In fact, I think it’s more likely that trust drives the length of time.

You don’t get to be a trusted advisor by logging hours. You get there by being more trustworthy. And not only does that not take more time, it actually takes less time.

Don’t let yourself off the trust hook; you can do it with quality, not time.

The Twin Sins of Trust

You’ve probably heard “sins of commission, and sins of omission.” It is usually linked to Christian theology, particularly some of the New Testament gospels and Paul’s epistles , but it also has been used by writers like Moliere, and in discussions of Aristotle.

Anyway, it’s a simple enough idea to be broadly useful. A “sin of commission” is doing the wrong thing. A “sin of omission” is a failure to do the right thing.

Sins of commission tend to be more obvious by their nature – but sins of omission can be catastrophic. Think of a lifeguard failing to respond to someone who “sort of” looks like they are in distress. Think of the “good German” concept (failure to act against the Nazis).

But especially, think of the two concepts as they relate to trust.

The Drivers of Commission and Omission

The nature of trust is that it involves risk. If risk is not present, then we may be talking about probabilities, but we’re not talking about trust. Someone must take a risk for trust to arise.

The risk almost always consists in potentially committing a sin of commission. I answer a question you have; I observe something about you or your business; I tell you what I think you need to do, or I hold forth on some topic. In all those cases – I could be wrong. That is the risk.

Taking that risk opens me to a sin of commission. I might be wrong. You might be offended. I might not get the sale. Everyone might suddenly realize that I’m the blundering fool I’ve desperately been trying to keep hidden from people. And so, we do nothing, because it feels less risky. And in this we are wrong.

But by doing nothing, we open ourselves to the possibility of sins of omission. If I take no pain, I get no gain. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Wayne Gretzky said, “You’ll never miss a shot you never take.”

And the results are measured in lost opportunity. Love. Repeat business. Deeper, trust-based relationships.

The Calculus of Commission and Omission

Here’s the thing. People systematically over-estimate near-term results and underestimate long-term results; and they over-estimate the pain of commission vs. the pain of omission. We fear losing something more than we fear not gaining something. One bird in the hand is worth two birds  in the bush (i.e. 50% more valuable).

The result?  A systemic bias to absorb sins of omission, rather than suffer sins of commission. Applied to trust, that means the most likely reason for low trust is the failure to take a risk in the first place. And I see this every day, all around me.

I see it in technical and services professionals. They fear being wrong more than they fear appearing silent, and so they say nothing, or they blather on about the unimportant. They are so fearful of emotional connection that they attribute that same fear to the customers, telling themselves that customers really don’t want relationships, that they must remain “professional.” In this, they are painfully, systematically wrong.

I see it in relationships. People are afraid of being vulnerable or hurt, so they shut down, or they pre-emptively attack others.

I see it especially in sales. The fear of doing something wrong leads salespeople to do what they think is low-risk. That usually means sticking with credentials, filling in silences, talking about themselves, or “How ’bout them Bulls.” God forbid they have to answer a question to which they don’t know the answer, or engage the customer emotionally.

Institutional Trust

And then there is structural trust. The more we try to improve institutional trust by guarding against sins of commission, the more opportunity costs of trust we create. When we pass legislation to prevent abuses of trust, when we insist on more insurance clauses in our contracts, and when we build more steps into our business processes, we are chipping away at trust by failing to allow any risk at all. This is why business so easily confuses compliance with trust.

The moral of the story is this: if you strip out all risk, you end up with no trust. And that is not a happy world to live in.

Trust-based Selling, the Advanced Course

Hand The Ball Over, See What HappensI had lunch the other day with Jack S., a client from 5 years ago. At the time, Jack managed a sales organization in the reinsurance business. (If you think insurance is complicated, try understanding reinsurance!).

Since then, the industry has consolidated; Jack works for one of the top three reinsurance brokerage firms. His job has evolved into a sort of senior advisor  to the 100 or so consultative salespersons. As we talked, I realized he is operating at the very top of the trusted advisory, trust-based selling world. See what you think.

Charlie: How do you get asked in to see customers?

Jack: Each salesperson has about 5 clients, and typically at least one is having problems. Since I’ve got deep expertise and experience, and the reps trust me, they invite me in to meet the client.

Charlie: So, you get invited in as an expert? What happens then?

Jack: Yes, the rep typically tells the client I’m some super-expert. They introduce me with a big pitch, my resume, all my qualifications and so forth.  Then they hand it over to me, and that’s when I surprise them.

Charlie: Yes?

Jack: I just ask the client to tell me what’s going on. I can always feel the rep beside me screaming inside his head, “What!? That’s all you’ve got? I pitched you as an expert, where’s your demonstration?”  But I’ve found this works much better.

They can tell pretty quickly that I’m totally paying attention, and that I’m nodding in all the right places. Just a short question or comment from time to time is all I really need to show that I know what I’m talking about, and I always make sure we turn the conversation right back to them.

Charlie: What a concept – open by letting the customer talk!  Any other best practices or tips about how to do that?

Jack: Yes. I frequently ask the rep before we go in to resist their temptation to fill empty spaces in the conversation – to just follow my lead. You know, when you’re trying to sell something, a lull of even half a second in a conversation can feel like an eternity, and you’re worried about filling that gap, keeping the momentum going.

But if you let the customer fill the silence, they almost always will. And they seem to interpret it as permission to go a little further, to tell a little more about the situation.  Which happens to be great – they’re sharing much more with us, and I haven’t said a word.  The rep is often amazed when we leave, “I can’t believe he said that, he’s never talked about that before.”

Charlie: Brilliant. Now, what about failures?  Aren’t there some times where you don’t have a major new insight, you can’t solve the problem?

Jack: You know, I’ve learned there really aren’t any “failures.” Maybe a quarter of the time it turns out that the client is already doing everything they can, I can suggest a tweak or two, but basically they have to just bear down and wait out the situation.

If that’s the case, I just say simply you’re doing the right thing, you’re not missing anything, there is no silver bullet you haven’t found, or at least I haven’t found it either.  And that actually makes them feel better. Because they’ve been fearful and guilty, and I’ve given them permission to feel OK. They could already handle waiting for things to clear up, but they really appreciate the relief that comes from knowing they’ve done what they can.


I’ve written quite a bit about trust-based selling. Besides the book itself by that title, here’s a good article from a few years ago called Three Strategies for Creating Customer Trust.  As I scanned it after writing Jack’s story, I realized he touches on all three of those strategies.  Jack is really teaching the advanced course.

When You Can’t Get No Respect

You Gotta Give Some, To Get SomeSome will recall comic Rodney Dangerfield’s catch phrase. Others may remember Aretha Franklin’s iconic spelling, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

When you respect someone, it’s a verb.  When you get respect, it’s a noun. Either way, it has positive connotations.

But what’s the connection between respecting someone, and receiving respect from them?

Is it a chicken-egg thing? Does one cause the other? Is it inevitably one-sided, as in “respect for one’s elders,” where the relationship between respecter and respectee is a permanent one?

Is it like trust, where the trustor and trustee exist in a constantly reciprocating relationship? Is it like Jesus’s saying, “It is more blessed to [respect] than to [be respected]?”

Is it a Beatles-like thing, where “the [respect] you take is equal to the [respect] you make“? Is it like exercise, where no pain, no gain is the rule? Or is it like Bonnie Raitt sang, “I can’t make you [respect] me, if you don’t?”

And finally, what’s the connection with buying, selling, and the modern workplace?

Respect is Unconditional

We agree that we should respect others where respect is due (never mind who judges “due”). It’s much harder to agree that others should respect us. Particularly when the “others” are the ones we may be disagreeing with.

If I respect you, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll respect me. Many cultures show respect for elders; it doesn’t follow that the elders must respect the young. Nor is it necessarily disrespectful if they don’t.  So respecting someone is no guarantee that they’ll respect you (sorry, John Lennon).

Though frequently, it does work that way. To show respect to another can be a form of etiquette.  This function is powerful in sales, where it’s easy to disrespect customers’ knowledge, even if we don’t intend to.

Demonstrated respect for the customer is rare enough that respect can be a source of differentiation.  Too many sellers don’t follow the Kantian rule of treating others as ends in themselves, treating them instead as means to our own ends. That’s disrespect, and it’s not uncommon, given that selling is potentially a manipulative, secretive black art – if not handled from trust.

Respect should be unconditional. If I respect you only on condition that you respect me, that is faux respect. If you merit respect, I should respect you, regardless of whether you return it to me.


So far, you’re likely agreeing with most of what I’ve said.  But how about this. What happens when you should, by any objective measure, be respected – and someone disrespects you?

The key question is: do you return disrespect for disrespect? Let me be a little controversial here:

  • If you are holding a resentment against someone who has disrespected you, the salient point is that you are holding a resentment.
  • If you are upset by the lack of respect from others, as should be your due, the only relevant point is that you are upset.
  • If you lose all respect for someone who has disrespected you, then either you misplaced your respect in the first place, or you gave in the desire for revenge.
  • If you demand respect, you will most likely not get it. If you continue to demand it, you will continue to drive down the odds of getting it.

Respect is a virtue – when paid.  When respect is received – treat it as a gift, a gift of grace.

Act so as to earn respect – but give up attachment to the outcome.

Be grateful for the respect you earn – but don’t treasure it.

Respect others – but do so without conditioning it on being respected in return.

It is better to respect than to be respected.

If you can’t get no respect – that’s your problem. And you can fix it anytime you want, by detaching from the outcome.

Go respect someone.







When Being Trustworthy Isn’t Enough to be Trusted

In sales, you sometimes hear, “They were pursuing an aggressive strategy – aggressively waiting for the phone to ring.” In other words, sometimes you’ve got to take action.

Much the same is true of trust. If you want to be trusted, sometimes it’s not enough just to be trustworthy. Sometimes you’ve got to take action. But how?

Most of my work over the past 15 years has been on trustworthiness. In The Trusted Advisor and my other books, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Trust Equation – more properly, the “Trustworthiness Equation.” The implied (and often explicit) message is, “To be trusted, be trustworthy.”

But what about when that’s not enough?  How do you take action?

To understand what action to take, I need to differentiate between trust, trusting, and being trusted.

Trust, Trusting, and Being Trusted

In all the writing and research I see done in the field of trust, rarely do I see this critical but simple distinction being made. It seems quite obvious, when you think about it. One party trusts, the other party is trusted, and the result is trust. Simple.

And yet – most trust talk obscures the differences. See if you can guess which one is being talked about in these examples:

  1.      Trust in banking is down
  2.      Banks rank low on the trust scale
  3.      People don’t automatically trust their bank anymore.

I’d suggest that probably they mean the following:

1. “Trust in banking is down” – is about trust (e.g. the level of trust that exists between banks and their clients is less than it used to be)

2. “Banks rank low on the trust scale” – is about being trusted (e.g. banks are viewed as less trustworthy than football clubs or hospitals)

3. “People don’t automatically trust their bank anymore” – is about trusting (e.g. these days people are less inclined to trust everything, including, for example, their bank).

But since they all sound pretty much alike, unless you can read the mind of the writer, you can’t be sure. And here’s why that’s important.

The Reciprocal Relationship between Trusting and Being Trusted

The creation of trust between two parties depends on a reciprocating exchange. It begins when party A takes a small risk to trust party B – A is the trustor, the one doing the trusting. Party B is the trustee, the one who is trusted. And if party B agrees to the new relationship, the result is a higher level of trust.

Take something as simple as a handshake at a networking event. Party A goes over to party B and says, “Hi Mark, I’m Charlie – I think your work on the boson participles was great, and I just wanted to meet you (extends hand).”

If party B reciprocates (e.g. “Hi Charlie, delighted to meet you, I’ve heard about you as well, how are things? (shakes hand),” then the result is trust.

If party B does not reciprocate (e.g. B looks at A’s hand, does not extend his own, gives a tight-lipped smile and turns away), then trust is not created.

The key to trust creation is reciprocity – the trustor takes a risk, and if the trustee reciprocates, trust is created. If not, trust is not created.

Therefore: the absence of trust can be caused by:

a. too little trustworthiness on the part of the trustee, or

b. too much risk aversion on the part of the trustor.

Now here’s the key: if you want to be trusted, you have two strategies you can pursue.

  1. Increase your level of perceived trustworthiness (think trust equation), or
  2. Kick-start the reciprocity relationship by first playing the role of trustor. 

You’ve heard the second strategy before. Henry Stimson often gets credit for first saying, “The best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” The same is true of making yourself more trusted – demonstrate vulnerability by offering to trust first.  The natural human reciprocal response is to return the gesture – tit for tat, good for good, bad for bad.

How often have we heard: You get out what you put in, the love you take is equal to the love you make, one good turn deserves another, whether you expect good or ill, that’s what you’ll get. They’re simple statements, but not simplistic – they’re profound.

In game theory, the simple “tit for tat” strategy is shown to beat all others. (You’ll love the link – Richard Dawkins in video with circa 1990 computers).

Using Reciprocity – Rightly 

Reciprocity is deeply wired into our psyches. You can trust it. You can use it. You can depend on it working – if, that is, you don’t abuse it.

Want your customers to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Want your colleagues to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Want your direct reports, and your report-to’s to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Trusting + Trusted = Trust

Trust it. It’ll work for you too.