To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest

Bob Dylan long ago surpassed his namesake Dylan Thomas in fame. His lyrics grace the lists of most popular lyrics of all time; my favorite is “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face…” from Visions of Johanna.

Some lines are more than just poetically evocative – they also hint at serious truths. One such line is this: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The lyric is from Absolutely Sweet Marie, from (IMHO) his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1966. As with all Dylan songs, who knows what the artist meant – he’s not talking – but here’s my take.

It’s easy to color within the lines. It’s easy to paint by numbers, fill in the check boxes, meet the specs and follow the regulations. In short, to follow the law. But when it comes to issues like trust and ethics, balancing social responsibility and profits, navigating between government demands and consumer demands – it’s not enough.

It’s tempting, taunting, tantalizing, to look to the law (or corporate guidelines, or regulations) for guidance when faced with a difficult issue in client relationships, customer satisfaction, taking responsibility, or ethical issues. It’s also a copout.

Such issues demand a higher order of resolution. When faced with a client demanding to know the truth about some matter, how much truth do you share? The ‘law’ will clearly tell you what truths not to tell; and if you want to argue from omission, what truths are therefore not restrained. But your client – or your constituencies, or your legacy – isn’t going to be satisfied, in part because all you’re doing is citing ‘the law;’ you’re not taking any responsibility.

Being Honest, Being Principled

In this situation, I’m equating “be honest” with “be principled.” Principles apply to more than just honesty, but honesty will do fine as a stand-in for other principles. The point is – you’d better have something more than chapter and verse at hand to satisfy a demand for trust or fairness, whether from clients, employees or society at large. The statement “but it was legal” doesn’t cut any mustard in the higher courts of human interaction.

If you’re looking to be trusted, compliance is de minimis; by itself,  even inflammatory. “Sorry, that’s the law” is only slightly more satisfying than “Sorry, that’s our policy,” or, “Sorry, that’s not how we do things around here.”

Instead, you need principles – rooted in human nature and human relationships. Principles like service to others, or collaboration, or transparency, or don’t treat others as means to your ends. It’s principles like these that provide better guidance to tough decisions. (It’s also principles, that in the long run, must undergird the law itself for the law to be seen as legitimate.)

Living Outside the Law

To “live outside the law” doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.

That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance. We trust those who come from someplace deep, a place where connection to others and relationships with them are bedrock. People who feel their principles and are confident enough in them to re-compute them in every situation, as if for the first time.

If you’re going to live outside the law – and you should – you’d best be honest.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Manage an Untrustworthy Client (Episode 5)

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How the Best Leaders Build Trust

The following is a guest blogpost by Rick Lepsinger of OnPoint Consulting. You can connect with Rick directly at rlepsinger@onpointconsultingllc.com.  

Several years ago, tech giant Google set out on an ambitious research quest to build the perfect team. The project examined a host of factors, including team composition, management style, and task management, poring through a mountain of quantitative and qualitative data over the course of several years to identify what factors made teams successful. When the study concluded, the final results were actually quite simple.

What mattered most to a team’s success wasn’t how it was put together, how it carried out its tasks, or how quickly it worked. Instead, it came down to a single word:

Trust.

Teams in which members trusted one another were far more likely to take risks, ask questions, admit mistakes, and offer new ideas than teams with low levels of trust. Intuitively, this should not have come as a surprise. People feel more secure when they trust those around them, which allows them to focus their energy on the tasks at hand rather than constantly assessing where they stand with others.

In today’s team-driven business world, building a culture based on trust is one of the most important responsibilities facing leaders in all types of organizations. While companies may go to great lengths to establish a culture that encourages trust, it falls upon individual leaders to follow through with those intentions and bring that level of trust to their teams.

In order to build trust strong enough to endure, leaders must first understand the essential elements of trust and recognize how they relate to one another. One way to think about the essential elements is to use the Trust Equation, as put forth in the book The Trusted Advisor.

Credibility

It’s difficult for a leader to build trust if they don’t have a proven track record of achieving results and demonstrating their expertise. Team members need to see their leader as a credible source of authority and information. If they don’t, they may second-guess decisions or become disengaged from the rest of the team.

Establishing credibility takes time and effort. Team members often need to see that someone knows what they’re talking about before they can place their trust in them. Leaders can, however, take a number of actions in their day-to-day dealings to improve their credibility. Avoiding exaggerations, answering direct questions with direct answers, and offering viable solutions to problems will help demonstrate to team members that they’re committed to being truthful and focusing on measurable results.

The best path to earning credibility is through building relationships with team members over time. Establishing a reputation for honesty by encouraging transparency and admitting when they don’t know something allows leaders to show they’re committed to the team’s success and not out to bolster their own reputations.

Team members need to trust that leaders stand behind what they say and do. They should not selectively disclose information or only emphasize positives while downplaying negatives. Should leaders lose that reputation for truthfulness, they run the risk of being seen as self-serving, manipulative, or unconcerned for their team’s success.

Reliability

If leaders need credibility coming into a team environment, they must show that people can count on them to follow through on their word if they want to succeed in the long term. Unreliable leaders who make big promises but seldom act on them will quickly lose whatever trust they’ve built. Team members need to know that their leader will be there for them and will keep whatever promises they’ve made.

While it’s easy to think of reliability only in terms of tasks and official responsibilities, it can extend to interpersonal dealings as well. A leader who always does their job can still lose the team’s trust if they make a habit of brushing off commitments and not following through on smaller issues on a regular basis.

Reliability needs to be established over time, but it can often go unnoticed if leaders don’t make the work they’re doing visible to others. Regular communication and transparency are extremely valuable in building a reputation for reliability. Clarifying roles within the team also helps to establish accountability by making it clear who is responsible for which tasks.

Intimacy

By this point, it should be clear that building trust is about establishing relationships. Intimacy, or the act of communicating and empathizing with others on a personal level, is a crucial part of this process. Regardless of their position within an organization, people want to know that they (and their work) are valued. Leaders must find ways to create connections with their team members that allow them to provide the professional and emotional support they need.

Team members also need to trust leaders to be discreet with the information and issues they share with them. This is particularly important for conflict resolution and internal feedback. If employees don’t trust leaders to show consideration in handling that information, they’ll be less likely to share it in the first place, which can only make existing problems worse over time.

Building healthy intimacy in a team environment requires a great deal of effort. Team-building activities that allow people to get to know one another outside the context of work are an effective method for deepening interpersonal relationships. Leaders can also set aside time to talk to team members regularly, allowing them to voice concerns or share their thoughts. This accessibility gives leaders an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and address issues before they become problematic.

Setting up internal community pages, social media groups, or message boards can help employees connect with one another in ways that go beyond their work responsibilities. Building these connections makes it easier for them to trust one another in difficult times because they can see what they have in common.

Self-Orientation

Good leadership often requires an individual to put the interests of others first. Leaders therefore need to be aware of whose interests are motivating their decisions and actions. A leader who constantly does things to make themselves look good, such as taking credit for the team’s work or asserting themselves purely to show off their expertise, will very quickly erode whatever trust they’ve built with their team.

Self-orientation can also impact the perception of credibility and reliability.  A manager with extensive knowledge and a proven track record for success might normally be seen as credible, but if their actions suggest that they care more about furthering themselves at the expense of others, they will find it difficult to leverage that experience with their teams. This kind of self-serving behavior also makes it harder for people to see them as reliable. It’s difficult to count on someone who has a reputation for only being out for themselves.

Anyone in a leadership position is going to have their actions closely scrutinized. Leaders must be sure to take their team members into consideration whenever they make decisions. Here again, communication is vital. People are better able to accept decisions when they know their opinions or concerns were genuinely heard and considered.

Identifying Trust Issues

As Tolstoy famously observed, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be applied to successful teams and failing teams, especially when it comes to trust. Effective teams may be structured differently, but they all exhibit the same fundamental elements of trust. Ineffective or dysfunctional teams, however, can take a number of forms, depending upon the root causes of distrust.

Many factors can make it difficult to establish trust or undermine it over time. One of the biggest warning signs of trust issues is deflection of responsibility. When no one accepts accountability for their actions, they’re sending a message that they don’t care about anyone but themselves. While this is bad enough from team members, it is absolutely toxic when the leader refuses to take responsibility because it makes trust almost impossible to establish.

Dysfunctional teams might also be riven by harmful gossip and backstabbing. Without proper intimacy and self-orientation, team members assume the worst from one another and question the intentions behind every action and behavior. Even worse, they rarely direct their criticisms at the person they’re upset with, instead sharing their negative thoughts with coworkers and undermining whatever sense of camaraderie might have existed on the team. When leaders speak ill of someone, other team members begin to wonder what might be said about them when they’re not around.

Healthy, effective teams thrive on interpersonal interactions. When team members stop relating to one another on a personal level, keeping all conversations to “strictly business,” deeper trust issues might well be at work. Effective communication requires a level of comfort. If team members aren’t comfortable communicating with each other, then they’re also likely to find it difficult working together in general. When leaders become distant and aloof, employees may begin to question their intentions or true goals.

While healthy teams celebrate wins as a group, dysfunctional teams often break down into a collection of individuals bent on pursuing their own goals. Rather than focusing on how to make the team succeed, a team member might instead focus on how to make themselves look good regardless of the team’s outcome. Leaders who become caught up in pursuing their own goals will quickly lose their team’s trust. Even worse, this behavior could very well encourage people to “save themselves” by focusing on avoiding responsibility for the team’s failures.

Establishing trust is one of the most vital tasks facing any leader in a team environment. While the talent of individual team members is obviously important, much of that talent will go to waste if the team is rendered dysfunctional by a lack of trust. Leaders must find effective strategies that leverage their credibility and reliability to facilitate better, more authentic communication. By establishing closer connections based on intimacy and proper self-orientation, leaders can avoid the damaging effects of losing trust within their teams.  

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Stepping Up To The C-Suite Client (Episode 4)

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The Degradation of Trust in Marketing

 

Think for a minute about the relationship between words and reality. In theory, we use words to describe reality. In practice, it goes the other way too. The words we use first affect our perceptions of reality, and then – through acting on our perceptions – reality itself.

Propaganda is the obvious example. But there’s a creeping, more insidious form of reality-distortion that has been playing out in the field of marketing in recent years.

Let me hone in on just three words: Content, customer, and relationship.

Ripped from the Headlines

Before and after AT&T’s recent US District Court victory in its pursuit of acquiring Time Warner, CEO Randall Stephenson stated on several occasions (e.g. here and here) the strategic rationale for the deal, basically:

We have direct relationships with over 120 million customers; data analytics allow us to match them to their preferred content, allowing maximum monetization.

I picked this example precisely for its banality. There is nothing incomprehensible about this statement; nothing logically or strategically wrong with it in business terms. We all understand what Stephenson means.

And yet – this statement, had it been made just 10 years ago, would have meant something entirely different. In fact, I’m not sure it would have been even comprehensible. That’s how far we have moved in terms of the meaning of words.

Content. Thanks to the cool Google Trends tool, I can tell you that interest in the  phrase “content marketing” as a search term grew by 1,400% in the 8 years from July 2000 to now.  With that growth came a change in meaning.

Way back then – ten years ago or so – the dictionary definition of ‘content’ was: “the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.” Synonyms included “subject matter, subject, theme, argument, thesis, message, thrust, substance, matter, material, text, ideas.”

That definition is now woefully out of date. Here’s how Wikipedia talks about content marketing:

“Digital content marketing, which is a management process, uses digital products through different electronic channels to identify, forecast and satisfy the necessity of the customers. It must be consistently maintained to preserve or change the behavior of customers.”

Today’s “content” (new meaning) is literally “content-free” (old meaning). (See how hard it is to talk about this stuff?).  The relevance – and even the substance – of today’s “content” lies solely in its ability to generate changes in behavior.

“Content” no longer means “the substance or material dealt with…as distinct from its form or style.” Instead, it is precisely the ‘form or style’ that has become the arbiter of quality. If they click on it, it’s good quality; if not, it’s bad content.

Anecdote. I get about two inquiries per week from “marketers” offering to write “content” for this blog, including clickable links, for which they offer to pay me.  About two thirds of them literally have spelling or grammatical errors in their (vastly impersonal) emails. Such a low bar, and yet the majority fail.

I invite the minority who can hurdle that low bar to feel free to take a shot, but that they actually have to demonstrate some knowledge of the subject of trust.

Most of them take me up on the offer to send a sample – and every single time, the drivel they send is massively content-free (old definition). It is banal, un-insightful, trivial, showing no interest in the subject matter –  little more than clickbait, cadged from other people’s “content.”

The word “content” has been stripped and flipped. Not only does it no longer mean what it meant – in the case of “content,” it has arguably come to mean the opposite – what we might have called “content-free” in another era.

Customer. This word grew only 300% in relevant Google search interest in the last decade. In the same time period, the word “consumer” actually declined by 50%. I’d like to suggest that today’s “customer” is what we used to mean by “consumer.”

Merriam Webster defines the difference thusly:

Customer: An individual usually having some specified distinctive trait: “a real tough customer”

Consumer: One that utilizes economic goods: “Many consumers make purchases on the internet”

In other words, one is an individual, a person, a human. The other is an abstraction, a datapoint, a statistically refined category.

Back in the 1990s, Martha Rogers and Don Peppers foresaw a brave new world of “One to One Marketing,” in which an organization fine-tuned its responses to address the unique needs of customers, ultimately at the individual level. They talked about “Interacting with customers” individually through “mail, phone, or online communication.”

Let me ask you: If you’re one of Randall Stephenson’s 120 million “customers,” have you recently tried “interacting” with AT&T through “mail, phone, or online communication?” Do you feel like an “individual?” Or like one of many ‘consumers?’

The word “customer” – just like “content” – has been stripped of its common meaning of only a decade ago. It has become bloodless and transactional. [Note: there’s a lot to like about this: I assure you I love buying online and having interconnected CRMs that learn my desires. But I don’t confuse it with having a ‘relationship.’]

Relationship. Google Trends tells us that the popularity of “relationship” as a search term has roughly doubled in the last decade. The Cambridge dictionary suggests “a relationship is the way two or more people are connected, or the way they behavior toward each other….A relationship is also a close romantic relationship between two people.”

That is so last decade.

For Randall Stephenson (and I’m not picking on him alone, it’s true for any BigCo these days), a “relationship” means a billing relationship, i.e. we send them invoices and they interact with our billing system, in accordance with complex fine-print clauses contained in contracts.

Or it can mean “Amazon may want to construct a more seamless relationship with its millions of customers.” Hmmm…ever tried to talk to an Amazonian?

A “relationship” is at the heart of CRM software, the “single largest area of spending in enterprise software” by 2021. Yet said “relationship” is conspicuously devoid of much in the way of interpersonal connection, the essence of the old definition of relationship.

Adding It All Up.

I didn’t call out Stephenson’s last word: monetization. But it speaks volumes for itself.

For all too many companies, monetization has become the goal, the objective, the point. And if your goal is simply and solely to monetize the customer-content relationship, you will end up cheapening the relationship – precisely the opposite result of what (supposedly) was intended. This is no different from shareholder-wealth-maximizing companies of the ’80s. Treating profits as goals rather than outcomes not only ruins relationships, but ultimately ruins profits as well.

Listen, I’m not trying to make a Luddite case. I am all in favor of most things tech and business. I’m trying to point out, however, that when we subconsciously appropriate old words for new realities – and fail to notice the shift – we end up adrift.

Is it any wonder we hear so much about declining customer loyalty? Unfulfilled young people’s real-world relationships? Angst, anomie and anger in social interactions? Reversion to tribal political connections? Lowered institutional trust ratings?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that in our haste for the brave new world, we neglected to provide names for some of the old virtues and values. Yet without names, we can’t talk about them.  And if we can’t talk about them, we forget them, and create a reality devoid of those same virtues and values.

Words – or their absence – really do affect the world we live in.

 

Tackling Trust in the Tech Sector

(I’m attending #CODECON this week). Trust in digital technology is a nascent hot issue. The headlines are a target-rich environment for emerging trust issues: from GDPR to autonomous vehicles to fake news to ad tech to AI to cyber-hacking. Tech leadership is scrambling to stay out in front of the EEC, the Justice Department, and – most of all – public opinion.

Trust is not yet the crippling threat that we see in financials or pharmaceuticals; brands are still strong, the sector is relatively regulation-free, and money is being minted. But the clouds are on the horizon.  According to Edelman PR, “Trust in technology is showing precipitous decline.”  Smart leaders know not to ignore the canaries in the mine.

The usual solutions are – to be kind – all over the map. They include governance, “best practices,” re-skilling, communications efforts, transparency initiatives, compliance programs, and mission statements.

If you feel these “solutions” are all vaguely unsatisfying – you’re right. What they all lack is a fundamental understanding of the basics of corporate trust, as applied to tech.

At the root of it all: people trust people more than organizations.

Trust – the Basics

Consider three basic, commonsensical tenets of trust:

  • Trust is a dynamic relationship between trustor and trustee;
  • Trust is created when a trustor takes a risk, to which the trustee responds (or doesn’t), creating higher levels of trust (or not);
  • The strongest trust is between persons; trust in organizations by contrast is pale, or ‘thin.’

Here are a few counter-intuitive corollaries of those basic principles:

  1. Working directly on the perception of corporate trust – through PR, advertising, reputation management – is pushing on a string. Corporate messaging urging you to trust the corporation is impersonal, viewed skeptically, and weak by nature;
  2. Risk mitigation doesn’t help trust, it destroys it. All trust begins by a trustor taking a risk; no risk, no trust.
  3. The best way to create a trusted organization is to create a Trust-based Organization: one in which all persons are trusting and trusted by all those they encounter, in all their interactions.

The failure of corporations to articulate coherent approaches to trust can be traced to their failure to fully appreciate that trust is primarily personal, that it requires risk, and that it is driven by employees interacting with others based on core trust values.

A positive (or negative) personal interaction with a Lyft driver does more to create (or destroy) trust than a revised TOS agreement, ad, or app feature. Ditto for an Airbnb host, a Google technical service rep, or a Salesforce account exec.  Corporate trust is created by the aggregation of personal interactions at the platform/customer interface.

Trust Basics Applied to Tech

The tech industry, like most, has a few peculiar wrinkles. For one, tech inherently deals with inanimate, impersonal ‘things,” whether that be iPhones or algorithms. It’s an uphill battle to personalize trust.

Another signature trust challenge for tech is scaling. This typically means data capture, digitization, and algorithms-cum-procedures. Trust can also scale – but through values, not algorithms. Corporate trust ultimately rests on personal trust, which rests on personally-demonstrated values:

  • Southwest Airlines’ reputation emerged unscathed from recent disasters that would have sunk United, because its demonstrated emphasis on deeply personal interactions inoculated it against the impersonal “big company” image;
  • Facebook has a great trust advantage in that its core subject is personal relationships. But it gained a reputation as being “creepier” than Google because, once hacked by fake ‘friends’, our sense of personal betrayal is far greater than for a flawed algorithm about buying preferences.

Transparency in tech is big – but often misunderstood. Transparency per se is not key – it’s how open you are about what you’re being transparent about. Ten pages of “disclosed” Terms of Service is like the small print at the end of your bank statement – more a cause for suspicion than a gesture of openness. Tech customers – like all people – will accept a wide range of behaviors as long as they feel you’re being intentionally open about them.

What is To Be Done?

The answer is simple, albeit not easy. Create a Trust-based Organization.

As noted above, that means an organization in which the cultural DNA is rooted in individual relationships, in which people know how to be trusting and trustworthy in all their personal interactions, and in which the organization supports such traits through some specific shared values.

  • Trusting. The key skill of trusting is intelligent risk-taking. This is less about risk-aversion, and more about knowing how to be personally vulnerable and emotionally connected. The skills of empathy, listening and transparency are, to paint with a broad brush, not widely practiced in tech – but they are as key to trust as anywhere else.
  • Trustworthiness. The Trust Equation lists the four factors of personal trustworthiness: (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation. Tech people love the equation-based formulation, but tend to focus overwhelmingly on the two ‘rational’ components of Credibility and Reliability. Yet our research shows that, in fact, the single most powerful factor driving personal trustworthiness is Intimacy. Again, not a core strength in most of tech.
  • Values. The Four Trust Principles – Collaboration, Relationships over transactions, Transparency, and Other-focus – offer a values-based beginning point for cultural transformation. There are many things an organization can do to become trust-based, but chief among them are conscious role-modeling on the part of leadership: in particular, role-modeling of the virtues of trusting and being trustworthy.

(It’s worth noting that the traditional tools of change management – metrics, KSFs, incentives – are not only not very helpful in trust, but can even be counter-productive: we don’t trust others if we think they’re incentivized to appear trustworthy just to gain personal advancement).

In sum, people don’t trust YourCo. They trust the people in YourCo, and they do so based on how those people interact with them and with all others.

If you’re serious about improving trust in your company, don’t lead with your communications department – lead with your leaders. Personally.

 

Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

I’ve led a fair number of trust-building workshops over the years. I’ve even written a book or three on the subject of trust. One thing hasn’t changed much: I still hear the same question, no matter who I’m speaking to, no matter what country I’m in.

“Do we really have to practice the soft stuff?”

It’s inevitably followed up with some variations of “I get it, but this isn’t going to help me close the big deal I have on deck,” or “Yes, but it’s different here,” or the classic, “This is so basic, why are we wasting our time?”

Let me answer that.

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab Lyft driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known – but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most have to do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring – but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills – it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame  lies mainly with L&D organization leadership itself – for not pushing back hard enough, even for partly buying into the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills behaviors.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you will be able to give acceptable feedback. (Go re-watch the movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms – role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens – and it always does – everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? Music teachers have one advantage: they are typically older than their pupils, hence in a natural position of authority; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly – no need to waste time on faux drama.” Right.

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I know to over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s still the L&D folks who must not let them get away with it.

I find that each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

For HR staff – in my experience – the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary – they speak plain language – this means that clients will predictably abuse them.

And so when the students resist doing what the L&D people know perfectly well they should do – the teachers don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

If your students ask you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”

How Not to Create Corporate Trust

In the past few weeks, one Southwest Airlines flight suffered the first US airline casualty in a decade, while another flight had to be diverted when a window ruptured. While there have been some notable exceptions, I think it’s fair to say that the media and public response has been pretty much crickets.

By contrast, imagine what the public and media reaction would have been had the airline in question been United. This despite the fact that the airlines are indistinguishably safe.

Question: Why does Southwest get a pass, where United probably wouldn’t?

Follow-up Question: How do you get your company to be perceived like Southwest?

I’m going to suggest a simple, unverifiable assertion: we trust Southwest more than we trust United. But what does that mean, and how can a company create corporate trust?

Where Not to Look

Don’t look to crisis management experts or plans. Don’t look to branding, or to reputation management. These are all second-derivative measures, aimed at direct manipulation of perceptions, rather than at fundamental first order causes. (And for heaven’s sake, don’t look to regulations and compliance).

You could say it’s all about corporate culture, and you’d not be wrong – it’s been said that Southwest’s culture is what creates our trust in the company. Or you could point out that Southwest continually ranks first in customer experience.

But culture is too vacuous a concept for serious managerial intervention. Culture is the end result of doing a whole lot of other things. You can’t act directly on culture, it’s a byproduct.

Customer service, while closer to tangible, is still the result of a thousand little things. How do you get a company to do those thousand things, and do them right?

Again, I think the answers come into focus when we reframe the question: How does one create a trusted company?

TrustProofing Your Company

Another assertion: most trust is at root personal. Robert Putnam talks about “thick” and “thin” trust, the first applying to close relationships, the second to indirect or reputational relationships. Corporate relationships are even ‘thinner.’ Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”  In that same sense, “all trust is personal.”

We don’t trust Facebook, we trust Zuckerberg – or not. We sort of ‘trust’ Apple’s design, but we trust more those smart/nice folks in blue shirts at the Apple store.

What this suggests is that we don’t trust companies per se in any rich, thick, deep sense – we trust the personal interactions that we have with people at those companies. Let me call those companies “Trust-based.” And so, Rule 1:

Rule 1: A trust-based company is one in which all employees behave in trusting and trustworthy ways with all stakeholders.

Also, because trust is personal, it’s important to understand the basic dynamics of interpersonal trust. Trust is an reciprocating relationship between a trustor and a trustee. The trustor is the one who takes a risk; the trustee is the one who then proves to be trustworthy, or not. If the trustee is trustworthy, then the level of relationship trust is increased – and the trustor/trustee roles reverse. Rinse and repeat.

Rule 2: Employees must embody the virtues of trustworthiness: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation. 

But personal virtue is not enough to make a corporate culture. Organizations have a large impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors, enough to bend and shape even individuals’ innate predilections. We also need what’s conventionally known as ‘values.’  Of course, merely having a list of values is worthless unless:

Rule 3: Organizations must systematically enforce and reinforce a set of trust-enhancing values that support trusting and trustworthy interactions. 

Pick your own, but we’ve found that four fit the bill nicely:

  • An instinctive focus on the Other
  • A propensity for collaboration rather than solitary or competitive action
  • A default to transparency, except where illegal or hurtful
  • A relentless focus on long-term relationships rather than short-term transactions.

My colleague Andrea Howe and I have written at greater length about this in Creating a Culture of Trust: Virtues and Values.

The Trust-Based Organization

Back to Southwest Airlines vs. United. Which is known for being personable?  And which for being institutional?

In the tech crowd, we ‘trust’ Amazon to run great algorithms and distribution systems; but it’s going to have to go to another level to get us to trust the “Amazon guy” who wants to put packages inside your door or your car trunk.

Facebook developed great trust because it fostered personal networks: until those networks  got infected with fake personal relationships.

What about your company? Are you trying to gain customers’ trust by focusing on written policies, social media outreach, or good PR? Are you focused just on data security, or customer service, or great privacy policies, or compliance enforcement?

You’ll be better off by focusing on building a trust-based organization: one that consists of people who are virtuous and skilled at trusting, and that supports trust-based interactions according to a set of values that encourages such relationships.

 

 

Yes Trust is Down – But Trust in What?

New headlines daily grace the front pages (or screens) of our news outlets that make us question just how far our trust in (fill in the blank) has fallen. Whether it’s politicians or social empires like Facebook, it seems that as individuals we are now in a constant state of “well who shouldn’t I trust now?”

In many ways it’s very true, but it begs an even more important question – if trust is so far down today, what does that really mean?

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s also a lot of uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

There are also some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. Trust requires a trustor and a trustee – they are different, and asymmetrical. One requires taking a risk, the other requires, broadly speaking, a moral virtuousness. “Trust,” properly speaking, is neither one of those things: it is the result of an interaction between the two of them.

The second distinction is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Google to find a babysitter to interview, but you don’t trust Google itself to babysit your infant. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in many, perhaps most, of our political institutions has declined. Ditto for most professions, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once – from your mobile;
  • some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number;
  • you share so much private information on Facebook (even after all the recent news);
  • you use Lyft, Airbnb, or another sharing economy app;
  • you paid your property taxes online;
  • you may have paid for Amazon to deliver via FedEx a camera that shows your front door.

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten years ago. These are small counter-examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest that we assign some pretty high levels of trustworthiness to other actors.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom.

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is akin to a non sequitur. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is indeed a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and in most western world countries.

And that is indeed something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the financial industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.

Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?

You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”

But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it.  The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.