Operating Transparently

Transparency is one of the Four Trust Principles for creating trust-based organizations. The other three are other-focus, collaboration, and a medium-to-long term perspective (aka relationships over transactions). Here’s the business case for transparency.

The article Is Transparency Always the Best Policy? first appeared a few years ago in The article is about Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the answer to the blog’s question, based on this sample of one, would appear to be a resounding ‘yes.’

In matters great and small, Levy has simply made it an operating practice to behave transparently. His great results may surprise many, but they make a great deal of common sense.

If you are transparent about your activities, you are saying you have nothing to hide. If you have nothing to hide, then people trust what you do.

If you are transparent about what you say, then you don’t risk saying one thing to one person and another to another. You don’t appear to be two-faced; you appear to have integrity—you say the same thing to all persons. (And, it’s a lot easier to remember what you said if there’s only one version).

If you are transparent about what you think, then people can observe your thinking, and see that you are not editing what you say. They feel you are available to them, that you are not segmenting them off.

If you are not transparent in your actions, your words, and your thoughts, then people wonder about your motives. Why are you doing what you’re doing?

What is it you really mean when you say something? And what are you really thinking when you’re thinking?

Suspicion about motives colors every aspect of trust—it affects your credibility, your perceived reliability, and the degree to which people confide in you. The antidote to a bad case of suspicion is transparency. It’s as true in the financial and regulatory world, in the world of negotiation, and in the world of accounting, as it is interpersonally.

So Why Aren’t We All Transparent?

With all the obvious advantages that transparency conveys—why aren’t we all more transparent more often?

There are a thousand answers, varying in particular, but with some common threads in general. At the root of it, I think, is fear.

Fear that others will take advantage of us. Fear that we will be misunderstood, or shamed. Fear that others will see the true inner “me” and thus steal the faux power we foolishly think we maintain by being opaque.

Transparency is both a result of lowered fear, and a cause of lowering fear. Sharing information with another encourages another to share with us. Disclosing information within a company—as Paul Levy did so frequently—begets teamwork and lowers suspicion.

The willingness to be transparent in negotiation helps the other party figure out what it is that you want—so the paradoxical result of taking a risk is that you increase the odds of getting what you want.

Transparency is an invitation to collaboration and connection. It lowers fear, it increases trust.

It feels like taking a risk, but it’s really risk-mitigation in disguise.

Operating transparently isn’t just a hospital procedure.

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Like trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

Building the Trust-based Organization, Part II

The Elephant In The OrganizationIn my last post, Building the Trust-based Organization Part I, I suggested that approaches to trust at the organizational level fell into several categories. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, all captured some part of the puzzle, but none grasped the entirety of the issue.  The five categories I listed were:

1. Trust as communication
2. Trust as reputation
3. Trust as recipe
4. Trust as rule-making
5. Trust as shared value.

I suggested a holistic approach would have a Point of View, a Diagnosis, and a Prescription.  Here is my attempt to offer such an approach.

Organizational Trust: A Point of View

Trust relationships are asynchronous – one party, the trustor, is the one who does the trusting, and who takes the risks. The other party, the trustee, is the one whom we speak of as being trustworthy. “Trust” is the result of a successful interaction between these two actors.

Trust is largely an interpersonal phenomenon. Trustworthiness is mostly personal, though we do speak of ‘trustworthy’ companies as having a track record or being reliable. Trusting, however, is a completely human action, not a corporate one.

Risk is necessary to trust: if risk is completely mitigated, we are left only with probability.

It follows that the most powerful meaning of “organizational trust” is not an organization that trusts or is trusted, but an organization that encourages personal trust relationships:

A trust-based organization is an organization which fosters and promotes the establishment of trust-based relationships between various stakeholders – employees, management, shareholders, customers, suppliers, and society.

Organizational Trust: Diagnosis

What is needed to create a trust-based organization? Since ‘trust’ is such a broad concept, it’s clear that themes like communications, regulations, and customer relationships will have a role. But to avoid a mere laundry list, what’s needed is some kind of primus inter pares relationship; or perhaps some necessary vs. sufficient distinctions.

My nomination is simple: an agreed-upon system of Virtues and Values. Virtues are personal, and represent the qualities sought out in employees and managers. Values are organizational, and reflect basic rules of relationship that ought to govern all relationships within the organization.

Some typical trust-based virtues include: candor, transparency, other-orientation, integrity, reliability, emotional intelligence, empathy.

I have suggested elsewhere Four Trust-based Organizational Values. They are expressed below in terms of customer relationships just to be specific, but they apply equally to relationships with suppliers, fellow-employees, and so forth.

  1. Lead with customer focus – for the sake of the customer. Begin interactions with other-focus rather than self-focus.
  2. Collaboration rather than self-orientation. Assume that the customer is a partner, not in opposition to us.  We are all, always, on the same side of the table.
  3. Live in the medium-to-long term, not the short term; interact with customers in relationship, not in transactional mode. Assume that all customers will be customers in perpetuity, with long memories.
  4. Use transparency as the default mode. Unless illegal or hurtful to others, share all information with customers as a general principle.

Advocates for Values.  I am not alone in citing Values as lying at the heart of the matter. McKinsey’s Marvin Bower put values at the center of his view of business, and McKinsey for many years was run from his mold. As Harvard Business School Dean McArthur said of Bower, “What made him a pioneer was that he took basic values into the business world.”

In 1953, Bower said, “…we don’t have rules, we have values…”

In 1974, he wrote, “One of the highest achievements in leadership is the ability to shape values in a way that builds successful institutions. At its most practical level, the benefit of a managed value system is that it guides the actions of all our people at all levels and in every part of our widespread empire.”

Bower’s biographer noted that Bower believed that “while financial considerations cannot be ignored, business goals must not be financial; if they are, the business will fail to serve its customers and ultimately enjoy less profit.”

The alumni of McKinsey – some, anyway – learned well. Harvey Golub said, “[values are] a powerful way to build a business…it worked for McKinsey and it worked for IDS and for American Express.”

IBM’s Lou Gerstner said: ‘“I believe that I learned from [Marvin] the importance of articulating a set of principles that drive people’s behavior and actions.”

[Note: McKinsey itself had some noticeable hiccups post-Bower. In my view, this is not an indictment of values-based management, but a sad example of how it requires constant values-vigilance].

The Case for Values.  The use of values as the basis for management is well-suited to the subject of trust, and this advantage shows up in numerous ways.

  • Values scale, in a way that performance management systems never can do.
  • Values are about relationships, in a way that incentives never can be; this makes them highly suitable to the subject matter of trust.
  • Values are infinitely teachable, in a way that value propositions or communications programs alone cannot aspire to.
  • Values are among the most un-copyable of competitive advantages.

Organizational Trust: Prescription

Managing a values-based organization will center around keeping the values vibrant. This is pointedly not done mainly through compensation and reward systems, corporate communications plans, or reputation management programs. Instead, it is done through the ways in which human beings have always influenced other human beings in relationship.  To name a few:

  1. Leading by example: trustworthy leaders show the way to their followers by their actions, not just their words
  2. Risk-taking: trusting others encourages them to be trustworthy, and, in turn, to themselves trust others
  3. Discussion: principles undiscussed are principles that die on the vine. Discussion, not one-to-many communication, is key to trust
  4. Ubiquitous articulation: trust principles should underpin many corporate decisions and actions; trust-creating leaders seize the opportunity for teaching points in every such case
  5. Recognition: Public praise for values well-lived is intrinsically motivating
  6. Confrontation: Trust-building leaders do not hesitate to overrule business decisions if they violate values, and to do so publicly in ways that teach lessons. Values, not value, are the ultimate arbiter of all actions.

To sum up: it’s a simple concept. Trust in a corporate setting is achieved by building trust-based organizations. Trust-based organizations are built to consciously increase the levels of trusting and of trustworthiness in all organizational relationships. The best approach to creating such an organization is values-based management and leadership. This is different from most approaches to management and leadership in vogue today.

The quotes about Marvin Bower were taken from:
Edersheim, Elizabeth Haas (2007-12-10). McKinsey’s Marvin Bower: Vision, Leadership, and the Creation of Management Consulting. Wiley.

Can Trust Scale? Interview with Stephanie Ann Olexa

Getting to The Core of ValuesI recently got to meet Stephanie Olexa, a renaissance woman whose most recent incarnation is as an executive coach, at her company Lead to the Future. She has quite a bit to say about trust, and about two organizations in particular.  Here’s our conversation.

Charlie Green: Stephanie, you’re hard to pigeonhole. You’re an author, teacher, entrepreneur, PhD, patent-holder, scientist, professor, angel investor – and that’s not even half of what you do. How did you come to be so multi-faceted?

Stephanie Olexa: You might say I haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up.  But in reality, I followed my curiosity.  I started as a teaching and research scientist in a medical school, then evolved to work in the business of science at two Fortune 100 companies, then jumped into entrepreneurship by forming my own company in a scientific field, followed by a short time applying business principles to nonprofit organizations and now using everything I learned along my journey to work as an executive coach, consultant and teacher.

C. You and I met through Trust Across America, and we got to talking about the issues of increasing trustworthiness in business. You had a fascinating story about how decisions get made in a Pennsylvania company you know; could you tell us about that?

S. I met one of the co-owners of the business at a dinner sponsored by the Delaware Valley Family Business Center.   (I asked, but he prefers not to be mentioned by name or company).

He, his brother and brother in law are equal owners of the company and equally share the title of President.  All major decisions are made by consensus.  Of course this goes against everything I learned in Business school so my curiosity was piqued.  I asked him to describe their decision making process.

They have a conference room in the company with a basket at the door.  The word “ego” is on the basket.  This, he said, is to remind everyone to leave their egos at the door. Also in the room is a sign with the company core values.  For every decision, they ask which alternative best meets their core values.  When he told me that after thirteen years they never had a disagreement there was a calm and peaceful look on his face.  I wanted to hug him!

C. The ability to manage like that – doesn’t that come from a homogeneous culture? Isn’t that virtually impossible to replicate?

S. First, I believe that business leaders are responsible for creating and maintaining the culture and that the culture must be based on shared core values. It’s not impossible to replicate, but it is hard to maintain and takes commitment.

C. This sounds like a small, private company. Can you really scale up this kind of management to bigger companies?

S. It is a private company, but not small.  They have over 370 retail outlets spanning Eastern United States from Florida to Maine, with over 5000 employees.  Layer on top of the size the challenges of leading remote teams and it is even more impressive.

C. Wow. So, how do you see what’s going on here? What makes it work?

S. It works because the leaders have consensus on their core values, the courage to live in accordance with them, and the commitment to demand that the business is managed in  a way that promulgates them.

C. So, why can’t we scale up larger companies in the same way? Or can we?

S. We can.  I believe that we need to have the leaders in those companies to commit to shared values and to be proud of those values.  The values can’t be in a strategic plan on a shelf but have to be demonstrated every day.

C. What are some of the benefits of increased trust in business that you see?

S. The literature has statistics on financial benefits but I have witnessed the human benefits, happiness, peacefulness, generosity, compassion and caring.  Trust in business spills over into trust in families, industries and communities.

C. Are there some other examples that come to mind that illustrate the trust opportunities in business?

S. I ran my company, a network of analytical labs, for twenty years.  It was built on shared core values.  We always told employees that if they made a mistake in a test, the problem could be solved but if they hid the problem there could be long term issues.  Mistakes of the hands can be fixed but mistakes of the heart were not tolerated.

A few years ago we hired a young woman right after her  graduation with a degree in Microbiology.  She was near the end of her six month training in a test for total coliforms in drinking water.  The method has strict quality control requirements but this is a test that is dependent upon the analyst looking at the results and recording them in a lab computer.

One Saturday morning this analyst saw that the QC requirement failed.  The correct thing to do was to invalidate all forty samples and recollect them.   She was alone in the lab and could have easily just checked the box that everything was ok.  She didn’t.   She called her supervisor at home, who then called me.  We had to call all of the customers and send out two collecting teams to get new samples and run them that day.  The expense of redoing the work was really high and the young analyst knew it.   I thanked her for her honesty.  Not one employee complained about the inconvenience or increased work.

But the best part is that the following month the young employee was voted employee of the month by her peers, citing her courage and honesty.  They wanted her on the team. So what was the benefit to me of the trust in the company?  I had no doubt that every employee would do the right thing even if nobody was watching.

C. This is timely; I’m just reading a 10-year old book, McKinsey’s Marvin Bower, wherein author Elizabeth Haas Edersheim describes the same utter devotion to values-based management that he instilled in McKinsey. I suspect Bower would completely agree with you what you’re saying, and I’ll note that while McKinsey was far higher visibility, your friend’s organization is larger than McKinsey was at the time.

S. Values-based management is not just a pretty phrase.

C. Not at all. Stephanie, thanks so much for taking time to speak with us, and best wishes to you. Where can people reach you?

S. My website is Lead to the Future, and my  email is



Riding the Shark: Vanquishing Fear in Selling, Part 4 of 4: Shark-proof Your Selling

Shark ProofingThis is the final post in a four-part series on Fear in Selling.  In the first part, I talked about the importance of dealing with fear in sales. In the second part, I wrote about the four types of fear.  In the third part I talked about fending off the sharks of fear. In this last part I talk about Shark-proofing your market – how to banish fear permanently.

The Sharks of Fear: Beyond Shark Repellent

There are Four Sharks of Fear:

1. Execution Fear. “I might mess up in doing this sale; I might not do it right.”
2. Competence Fear. “I might not know how to do this sale right; I may not even know I don’t know.”
3. Outcome Fear. “I might not get the deal at all – everything I wanted to happen won’t happen.”
4. Shame-based Fear. “They’re not going to like me or respect me anymore; and they’re probably right.”

While each can be dealt with tactically (see part 3), fear is a classic case where an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.  So – how do you conduct your selling life in ways that keep the Sharks of Fear permanently at bay?

It can be done.

Five Keys to Vanquishing the Sharks of Fear in Selling

First, let’s be clear where the solution does not lie. It is not in your sales process. You won’t find the key in sales management, and you won’t get there by tweaking your value proposition.

Instead, it consists of constantly applying five principles, or values, to every aspect of your selling life.  And here they are.

1. Always Sit on the Same Side of the Table. You are on the same team as your customer. Your interests are allied. There is no such thing as win-lose or lose-win, there is only win-win or part on friendly terms. You are not playing a zero-sum game, you are looking for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Don’t speak, write or think anything that posits you vs. your customer – your proper seat is on the same side of the table as your customer.

2. The Customer Gets Theirs First. The way to a successful partnership is not by insisting on 50-50 from the outset and at every step of the way. It comes from being gracious, putting the customer’s needs first, offering up some value, taking some risks, and listening before talking. The single best behavioral tool you can employ for this principle is – listen empathetically, long, and well. The result is that, when it’s your turn, you will be listened to in the same way.

Yes, a trust-based partnership has to work for both of you; but you get there by being willing to first focus on the customer’s needs, not your own.

3. Play the Long Game. The most powerful force in selling is the natural human tendency to return good for good, and bad for bad. Again – the most powerful force. Time, though of this way, is your friend, because time lets you develop relationships, not transactions. The more you develop relationships, the more your transactions will have context; and it’s a context of mutual courtesy, obligation and goodwill.

Don’t think of the sales process as a transaction, to be repeated. Think of it as a relationship, with ongoing interactions, but with a permanence all its own. And remember – the way you behave is the way you will be treated in turn. You empower what you fear; and you get back what you put out.

4. Keep No Secrets.  Transparency is to fear as a cross is to vampires. If you have no secrets, then there can be no surprises. If you don’t know something, say so. If you have information, share it. If you’re the best for the job, say so and say why. And if you’re not, say so as well – and that will be a lot more believable. Be the same person at all times to all people.

There are three exceptions, of course. Don’t give away trade secrets; don’t do anything illegal; and don’t hurt someone. Other than that, deal strictly in the Truth in all your affairs, and no one can or will fault you.  (And if you think giving away all your information will empower your competitors, think again – they can never replicate your relationships).

5. Lead With Your Chin. The thing that triggers trust, allows you to play the long game, and encourages collaborative reciprocal behavior is to be the one to take the first risk. Never mind what Ronald Reagan said – there is no trust without risk. If you want to create trust, you must lead with risk-taking.

Talk price early, not late. Admit your shortcomings up front. Give away samples – especially if you’re in an intangible services business. Have a point of view. Go out on a limb. Invest a little time, rather than checking your sales efficiency watch every minute. Dare to empathize.


That’s it. If you conduct your sales life by those principles, about 90% of customers will return your behavior in kind. The other 10%? Leave them to your competitors. Life is too short. And be assured, they won’t do as well as you and the 90% anyway.

How to Increase Trust in Organizations

Increasing Trust Within Your OrganizationI was grocery shopping Saturday. It was 2PM, 96 degrees out – pretty hot for New Jersey – and I was in the checkout line. The cashier had started sliding my purchases through the register, when suddenly I noticed a bag left over from the customer before me. She had left and gone to her car.

The woman doing the bagging noticed it at the same time. She grabbed the lady’s bag and dashed out into the heat. She was making pretty good time for a woman in her 60s, and we all could see her out the window as she finally caught up, handed over the bag, and started back.

Then the cashier suddenly exclaimed, “Omigosh, she left two other bags as well!” Looking quickly at me and the woman behind me in line, she said, “Will you two please excuse me for just a minute? I’ll be right back.” And she too took off after the forgetful lady, with two bags in tow. She was in her 20s, and made very good time.

It occurred to me I could slide a few groceries over the line and into my bag and escape without paying. (I don’t do such things, but the idea did show up in my mind). Then the elderly woman behind me in line said, “You know, I don’t mind one little bit waiting for someone who’s doing a good deed like that.”  Neither did I, I said, neither did I.

When the cashier and the bagging lady came back, we both complimented them, and they blushed a bit and said thank you. (I sent a complimentary email to ShopRite’s HQ later that night with the store number, employee name and cash register number, all of which were on the receipt).

So my question is: how do you get employees to behave like that? I mean generously, based on principle, willing to take certain risks, confident to act in the moment. How do you keep from getting sullen employees who talk about “career-limiting moves,” who won’t lift a hand or take a risk to help another?

How Do You Induce Values-based Behavior in an Organization?

Earlier that same day, I had the opportunity to briefly visit a Sears store, a Macy’s store, and a Bed Bath and Beyond unit. Sears was awful – employees keeping their distance from customers, 100 feet away, pretending not to notice. Macy’s was a little better, but still sullen, under-staffed, and radiating not-helpfulness.

BB&B was a huge contrast. Several employees, busy doing other things, asked me if they could help. I asked two for help, and they both went out of their way to do so.

How does this happen?

The standard answer in most businesses, I’m afraid, is to focus on the wrong things: typically  incentives, communications, and procedures.

The more I see of business, the more convinced I become that the single most powerful way to create values-based behavior is none of the above – it is to do it yourself, and to talk about it with others.

The Usual Suspects

Incentives appeal to the individual’s rational economic or ego-satisfying needs. Fine and dandy, but if you’re trying to incent selfless behavior, the concept of rewards is just a tad self-contradictory.

There is probably (I’m guessing) more money spent on communications than on any other “solution” to issues of trust, ethical behavior, and customer-focus. Companies love to pronounce their values to their customers, and reinforce them internally in posters, newsletters, and blogs. The problem is, impersonal companies communicating about personal relationships is some kind of category mistake.

And procedures? The whole point of values-based behavior is that the employee extrapolates from principles in the moment. Rehearsing and drilling doesn’t help extrapolate values, it replaces that process with rote memory.

Role Modeling

Think of how we learn from our parents. Think of the sports or public figures we admire (there are still a few). In all cases, we are influenced by what they do – not by what they say they will do, or did do, or wish they’d done.

When it comes to values, I suspect BB&B has leaders in their operations organization who both walk the talk, and talk it too. People who lead by example, and who are convinced that values like customer assistance are valid only if kept sharpened by use.

I suspect Angie the cashier at ShopRite was hired partly because she exhibited values. I suspect that the folks managing her store make a point of being helpful and customer-focused, and engage customers about values like that. I suspect it didn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t take the risk of leaving her cash drawer and my groceries unattended – because her leadership would have trusted their customers and done the same thing – and she knew it.

We have overdone the behavioral, incentives-based, needs-maximizing best practices model of human resources. We have under-estimated the human power of changing humans. After all, the business of relating to other people is personal.

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?


Three Things You Need to Know About Trust: Part 3

There are really only three things you need to know about trust. You can pretty much deduce the rest. The three parts are:

  1. Trust is a Two-player Game
  2. Trust Requires Risk
  3. Trust is Reciprocal

Part 3: Trust is Reciprocal–and What You Can Deduce From It All

Trust is created when one party takes a risk, and the other reciprocates positively. Think of a handshake offered, and returned.

Trust is AC, Not DC

We saw in Part 1 that one player does the trusting, and the other is trusted; the one doing the trusting is the one taking the risk.  That’s true – but only for the instant of that trust transaction. Trust is rarely built on one exchange alone, and the roles cannot stay fixed.

If you focus on being trustworthy, and your client trusts you, good for you. You can play that game for a while, but eventually your client will notice, ‘Wait, I’m taking all the risks here – what’s up with that?’ And at that point, they will stop trusting you.

You cannot escape the need to trust, as well as to be trustworthy. You have to take a risk too. Virtue may be its own reward, but unless you season virtue with risk-taking, you won’t get trust out of the recipe. To use an electrical metaphor, trust is not like direct current, moving in one direction – it’s alternating current, constantly changing direction.

Trust: Deducing Everything Else

In this brief series, I’ve claimed that “all you need to know” about trust is these three propositions – trust takes two players, it requires risk, and it must be reciprocating – and that you can deduce the rest. Let’s test that claim.

Organizational trust.  You may have noticed all my points have been about personal trust. What about organizational trust – trust in corporations, congress, the professions?

House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” In the same sense, all trust is personal. Trusting is something we do with our hearts and brains, one by one, personally; and trustworthiness is an attribute we ascribe almost entirely to individuals. (An exception is reliability: it makes linguistic sense to say that “GE is reliable,” or not. It is nonsense to say “GE is emotionally intelligent.”)

You can design corporate cultures to either encourage or discourage trusting and/or trustworthiness. And that’s pretty much it. Corporations may legally be people, but in the court of human nature and trust, they are largely environments which condition trust – they are not agents of trust themselves, only people are.

Trust, Virtues, Values, and Risk. The tools of individual trustworthiness can be found in the Trust Equation. The tools of individual trusting are about socially acceptable risk-taking. The tools of organizational trustworthiness and trusting – because organizations are environments for trust enhancement – can be found in the celebration of virtues and values.

Virtues are the personal attributes of trustworthiness – encouraged socially.  Values, or principles, are a set of guiding beliefs that govern interactions with others. Since trust is about relationship (remember Part 1), values drive the environment that creates or hinders trust. Among the most powerful trust-enhancing values are collaboration, transparency, and a long-term perspective. Organizations run along those lines create trust wherever they touch.

Trust Recovery. The business world frequently confuses “trust” with reputation, image, or poll ratings. This leads companies with trust problems to seek PR firms to focus on improving their reputation.

  • When your real trust levels exceed your reputation, you have a communications problem.
  • When your reputation exceeds your real trust levels, you have something a lot more serious, and throwing communications-only solutions at it is like throwing water on a grease fire.

Trust broken can be recovered, by the three basic principles above. It requires engagement by both parties, it requires risk-taking (particularly on the part of the offender), and it must be reciprocal. The biggest threats to trust recovery are an inadequate acknowledgement of the degree of rupture, and a refusal to accept the values required to change the state of trust.

Restoring Trust. The social issues facing us from lack of trust are real, and important. They can be addressed using the three principles above.

First, our trust crisis is not due to a global increase in the birthrate of morally impaired people. As noted in Part 1, trust is two-party game. It is about relationship. Trust failures are failures of relationship. Where we have lost trust, we have lost the ability to interact in relationship with others.

There are many reasons for this, including business thought leadership, an over-reliance on market solutions, and increased wealth disparity. All of them have emphasized the individual over the group.

The way to restoring social trust does not lie in better gun laws, tweaked incentives, stepped-up financial sector enforcement, or religion in the schools. It lies in Gandhi’s dictum to ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

It lies in the three trust facts: trust is a 2-player game of reciprocal risk-taking.  That means:

  • Trust is a personal job, not just one for leaders
  • Leaders must lead personally – by example, not by exhortation
  • Design environments that encourage people to trust and be trusted
  • Trust is about relationship – the Golden and Platinum rules apply
  • Trust is about relationship – anti-trust behavior is immature and socially poisonous
  • No pain no gain – there is no trust without risk
  • Trust is AC, not DC – you can’t always just be trusted, sometimes you have to trust
  • Trust is reciprocal – to make someone trustworthy, trust them
  • Blame and an inability to confront are the death of relationships and of trust
  • Run your life like you’d be proud to have it on the front page of the paper

If a trust issue sounds complicated, you’re over-thinking it. Go back to basics. There are only three things you need to know about trust, the rest you can deduce.




Books We Trust: The 3 Power Values by David Gebler

This is the tenth in a series called Books We Trust.

The 3 Power Values is, simply, an excellent book. Author David Gebler’s unique talent is to combine a Big Idea, such as the need to remove roadblocks as the key to performance, with precisely defined linkages between values, culture and behavior. He brings needed commonsense to the often vague, un-actionable, and fog-sculpting enterprise known as organizational effectiveness.

David is a consultant and educator, with 20 years experience helping leaders understand how to use their organization’s culture to improve performance and to stay out of trouble.

The Interview

Charlie Green: David, we spoke a couple of years ago about why companies have so much trouble getting a handle on ethics issues and it seems like things are getting even worse.

David Gebler: I agree. Ethics scandals fill the papers every day. We don’t see change because we’re not dealing with the real issues that lead people to do bad things. We think that regulations will define outer boundaries to actions and that morals will guide us inside those boundaries. And that just isn’t the case.

Charlie: Why not? You would think that following the rules and knowing right from wrong would be enough.

David: What doesn’t get factored in is the environment we work in. Whether we follow the rules, even what we think is proper, is heavily influenced by the culture. Social norms tell us whether it’s OK to flout the rules. The norms also tell us whether to feel entitled or remorseful when we cheat or do something wrong.

Charlie: When is it OK to violate rules?

David: Charlie, even you have driven over the speed limit. But you wouldn’t call it morally reprehensible, I suspect. We have normalized that speeding, up to a certain point, is something we all do. So even if it’s illegal, we don’t see it as a moral issue.

Charlie: Did you say that moral issues are also subjective? What do you say to those who say morals are morals, right is right, and wrong is wrong?

David: The truth is, even our definition of what is right is subjective. Leaders in behavioral economics, such as Dan Ariely, point out that everybody has the propensity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. The behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations.  On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people.

What determines whether we feel good about ourselves is the environment we’re in. If we’re in a culture where cheating is frowned upon, people will cheat less, because cheating impacts their sense of self. But if the culture is to take advantage and win at all costs, then cheating and cutting corners becomes just the way we do business.

Charlie: So if the key factor is culture, why do so few leaders tackle this issue head on?

David: Culture is so intangible that leaders hesitate to dive in – not even just to understand it, much less to tweak it. Many leaders haven’t focused on measuring and managing culture, not realizing that they can. Most don’t understand whether their culture hinders or supports performance, much less the implementation of strategies. And finally, many leaders don’t even know whether their culture encourages unethical or illegal conduct.

Charlie: In the book you explain that three “Power Values” are essential to get a handle. What do you mean by that and what are those values?

David: Twenty years of work with companies showed me that three values – integrity, commitment and transparency – stand out in fostering identification and community. I call these the power values because they can influence specific behaviors that in turn positively influence an organization’s culture. The chain is: values > behaviors > culture. It is the behaviors that nudge the organization’s cultural components (goals, principles, and standards) into alignment.

By focusing on the specific behaviors that make up integrity, commitment and transparency, you can transform negative behaviors impeding performance into positive behaviors supporting performance. This is how you measure and manage culture as a way to rev up performance and reduce risk.

Charlie: What if employees in the organization don’t understand these values?

David: Most employees already hold these three power values personally. When the power values are highly visible in an organization, they clarify the organization’s intentions and give employees a unifying sense of purpose and direction.

Employees who share their principles, goals, and outlook – the essence of the power values – can let their guard down a bit. They can trust that they will be understood, that there will be fewer booby traps, and that their leaders and coworkers will generally act in a predictable way, consistent with their shared values.

Charlie: What’s the connection between these power values and the kinds dysfunctional cultures we were just talking about?

David: In a positive corporate culture, employees feel good about themselves and their work (commitment).  They raise issues and freely ask questions (transparency).  They don’t feel challenged by unfair or inconsistent work processes, because people take personal responsibility for their actions and live up to their commitments (integrity).

When the elements of culture are out of alignment, frustrations arise. If principles are unaligned with goals, employees disengage and don’t feel a vested interest in their work (lack of commitment). When goals are out of sync with standards, unfairness arises as managers and employees “do what they have to do” rather than what they have said they would do (lack of integrity). And when standards are aligned with values, employees see that the organization’s actions are inconsistent with its principles, and it becomes hard to ask uncomfortable but important questions and ensure that the truth is heard (lack of transparency).

Charlie: How can you foster a positive corporate culture right from the start?

David: Organizational culture isn’t something that can be faked – or “implemented” – by leadership. The culture is simply the way the organization and its people conduct themselves. Organizations have cultures from their outset, though few start-ups spend time defining their culture when they’re small and everyone knows everyone.

When a culture goes bad, it’s not a sudden event; it’s a case of of slow erosion over time. Things begin to change. At the beginning it’s little things, e.g. a business decision made in the heat of the moment when the decision-maker didn’t feel the urgency to deal with the long-term impact at the time of the decision.

Leaders who understand the role organizational culture has in shaping behavior and performance, however, will be mindful of the early warning signs of trouble. Successful culture management means that leaders recognize the first steps down the proverbial slippery slope, and take actions to address them when they’re still small.

To do that, leadership must have a clear sense of a) what kind of culture is needed to achieve the organization’s goals, and b) what behaviors are needed to ensure that the desired culture is sustained. Successful leaders know that the small things matter greatly, and that veering off course is not to be done lightly or without serious plans to right the ship.

Charlie: Thanks, David, for sharing your insights. Until reading this, I also didn’t have a good idea of how one could actually manage culture.  You have managed to educate me greatly!

David: A pleasure, Charlie .

Real People Real Trust: Transforming a Business from the Inside Out

Ron Prater has worked in government consulting firms for almost 20 years, including three years with Arthur Andersen LLP. In 2007, he set out with partner Alan Pentz to create a company that would apply real entrepreneurial curiosity to find new ways to solve the U.S. government’s biggest problems. The result is Corner Alliance. Find out how this organization, triggered by a crisis in its formative years, applied the principle of collaboration to devise a new and different kind of corporate culture.

Leadership Lessons

Ron and I have known each other through other people for years. A few months ago I was talking with Corner Alliance Director Sarah Agan, a mutual colleague and veteran consultant. I was intrigued by the unusual ways she described a recent all-hands meeting. “We practice ‘inner voice’ all the time,” she said. “And we have an explicit value to eat our own dog food.” Needless to say, I was intrigued by Sarah’s word choice and even more so by her animation. I wanted to find out more. So I set up some time to talk with Ron and Sarah together.

Ron explained it to me, “‘Eating our own dog food’ means we operate the way we advise our clients to—we follow the same processes and approaches we recommend to them.” “Essentially, we practice what we preach. It can be harder than it sounds when you’re trying to balance helping clients succeed while also trying to grow a sustainable business. And it hasn’t always been that way, even in our company’s short life.”

Learning the Hard Way

Corner Alliance had some growing pains in its early years. “We had a really tough time a few years ago when we lost a project that led to a serious financial struggle,” Ron confided. “I, along with my partner, Alan, and our Director of Operations, Brandi Greygor, responded in typical ways. Privately, we talked daily about how much money we had left in the company’s line of credit and what to do if we maxed out what the bank would loan us. Publicly, we sent a general message to staff that we all needed to ‘increase billability’ but we were afraid to state the full reason.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by keeping the true stress from our staff. The MBA books say it’s important to protect the people from the stress of running the business. And the HR consultants told us we had to follow proper procedures to avoid lawsuits if we did have to lay people off. So we kept things hidden.”

Going contrary to conventional business wisdom, Ron and the other principals listened to their own inner wisdom. “It’s not how our guts said to handle it. We faced a real inner conflict every day for months. How do you form a company of trust and transparency when it seems like all the advice you get—from grad school, friends, lawyers, and more—says to withhold information?

“Looking back,” Ron said, “I grew more personally from that very tough time than from every great year I had. While it was hard, the learning from those six months led to one of the most positive and significant turning points for Corner Alliance.”

Eat Your Own Dog Food

Out of the crisis came a big transformation for the company. “With cost-cutting, along with full transparency with our staff, we managed to stabilize our operations,” Ron said, “And we realized that, on the heels of such a hard and painful time, we had a real opportunity to fundamentally re-think and re-vision.

“So Alan and I announced to our staff that he and I would map out a new company strategy,” Ron elaborated, “including our top three strategic priorities. We told people at an all-hands meeting that we’d start by focusing on which clients to talk to and what to offer them. That message landed with a thud. Within the first few minutes of the meeting it was clear we had made a huge mistake and needed to rethink the approach.

“Our people said, ‘That’s not how we advise our clients to develop strategy. So why are we doing it that way?’”

That uh-oh moment led to a dramatically different plan to create the company’s strategy. “We realized we’d be stronger if we engaged the whole company in the company,” Ron continued. “And instead of starting with what we do and where we want to go, we started with who we are and what we wanted to stand for as a company,” Ron explained.

Put Values First

The group put first things first. “We focused first on our values, and to do that we created a conversation rather than creating a task,” Ron said. “We also found a way to make it a truly collaborative process, not just a collaborative process led by one person. We’ve never been about one-person trust—not at our core—so we found a way to define our values that would reflect that we all have to trust everyone else in the company.

“Since we’re a virtual company with staff in five different states, we selected an on-line tool to help us create the conversation. Everyone could contribute real-time, see each other’s inputs, make comments, and vote.”

Take Your Time

The process of defining yourself takes time Ron learned. “We allowed three weeks to generate ideas, and it took us about four months to solidify our values. If we had tried to get results in a one-day strategy session, our output would have been more generic—even with everyone participating,” Ron added. “People needed time to digest and think through what they stood for and then internalize that in relation to the company. The elapsed time allowed people to contribute at their best, and allowed the most important things to materialize organically.”

They ended up with 10 explicitly stated corporate values that are the foundation on which Corner Alliance continues to be built. Not surprisingly, “Eat our own dog food” was on the short list.

It’s a value that Sarah especially endorses. “We live that value even beyond our approach to strategy development,” she added. “Everyone takes turns running our internal meetings—everyone. We share leadership that way, and expand our capacity as leaders and facilitators at the same time. People get to experiment, practice, and learn in a safe environment, and they get real-time feedback. Just like the leaders we serve, we have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn.”

Sarah continued, “It’s okay for things not to go well. What’s not okay is not learning from it. One of the greatest gifts we give each other is feedback. We are deliberate about creating a culture where we all recognize we’re both perfect and imperfect, where we can bring our whole selves—who we are and who we aren’t.”

Tell It Like It Is

Financial transparency is another key value that emerged from Corner Alliance’s collaborative strategy process. “Alan was instrumental in moving us to open-books management,” Ron said. “We now share just about everything with all employees every quarter, the exception being salary information. We have bi-weekly company-wide calls where everyone sees each other’s billability, our revenue, where we are exceeding or falling short of revenue projections.  We don’t hide anything bad or anything good.”

Ron is clear that the effect is palpable. “It has made a massive difference in everyone understanding the business impact of their decisions,” he stated. “It also supports one of our other corporate values, which is sustainability. I believe the whole firm really understands the state of Corner Alliance and can see that we have a really strong foundation for growth right now.”

Be Bold with Clients

That kind of transparency also now extends to Corner Alliance clients—in a bold and differentiated way. The stated value “inner voice” is about people sharing their internal dialog as much as possible, recognizing that’s often where the truth lies. Corner Alliance staff is encouraged to not leave important things unsaid.

“This is definitely not easy,” Ron emphasized. “It takes a commitment to practice over time with our clients and with each other. We actually label it, as in, ‘Using my inner voice, I’d like to say I think there are serious organizational risks associated with what you are considering.’ This makes it easier to do and hear as the person listening now knows that the person speaking is taking a risk.

“Our people know they’ve got the organization behind them every time they venture into inner voice territory,” Ron affirmed. “As Alan points out about using inner voice, ‘It’s a personal risk to reveal what you’re thinking but not saying. It’s a risk to the organization if you don’t.’ But we all also recognize it’s important to apply this value wisely, appropriately, and thoughtfully.”

Perhaps the most unexpected result from this dedication to speaking the truth is that clients have begun to pick up both the practice and the lingo. Ron explained, “When our clients started saying to us, ‘My inner voice is saying xyz,’ we knew we were onto something bigger.”

Reap the Rewards

The list of indicators that Corner Alliance is onto something is long, and now includes growing staff, secure multi-year prime contracts in place, and work with key government executives who have budgets in the billions. “Corner Alliance is poised for an incredible year in 2012,” Ron said with pride. “Not only are we making a difference in the business of government, but we get emails from clients saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The focus for 2012? “Helping people thrive by doing creative, meaningful work, and living the life they want—not just the work life they want,” said Ron.

The Bottom Line

Ron feels very strongly that what Corner Alliance has created was not led by or done by one person. “Featuring me for this article is actually counter to our culture,” Ron stressed. “Corner Alliance has been led by a collaborative approach using values as our core, and that’s precisely what will lead us into the future.”

And a promising future it is.

Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership; Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like, and John Dunn: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership.