Trust Matters, The Podcast: Kick-Starting a Relationship with a New Boss (Episode 20)

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Trust Matters, The Podcast: Trusting a Team Member on a High-Profile Project (Episode 19)

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Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Establish Trust When Managing a New Team (Episode 8)

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Sex, Lies and Memory. And Trust.

She says he sexually assaulted her. He categorically denies it.

Surely one of them must be lying, and a Senate hearing is the right place to get to the bottom of it.

NOT.

I don’t usually write about current events, but sometimes a teachable moment arises that just begs to be waded into. So here we go.

Memory

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast has two episodes (three and four, season 3) devoted to the issue of memory. His starting point is the memory that both he and a NYC neighbor have about their interactions on the morning of 9/11.

Both are utterly confident about their detailed recall: and yet each is at complete odds with the other. Clearly they cannot both be right. Clearly one must be lying – right? Yet each vehemently denies it.

Now let’s imagine two people trying to recall traumatic events of 30 years ago, when both were in their teens. One may have been very drunk, and may have behaved very badly toward the other. Or maybe not.

  • Is it possible that the accused acted so far out of character in his drunkenness that his unconscious blotted out the memory? (Not to mention plain old drunken blackout effects).
  • Is it possible that the accuser felt so traumatized by some event that her unconscious, talking to no one else over the years, scrambled dates, names, and even events?
  • What are the odds that either party has crystal-clear memories of what transpired at a teen-age party three decades ago? Is it possible that each might have subtly and unconsciously rewritten history just a tad?

Not only is it possible, it’s downright likely. Human memory is far from the tabula rasa we like to believe. The boundaries and limitations of eyewitnesses and their memory have been well discussed in the law.

A Tale of Plagiarism

I faced this myself. Years ago, in the midst presenting some material to a faculty at a well-respected US University, I was publicly and dramatically accused of plagiarism.

I was astonished, outraged, and indignant. I had done no such thing! The audience was entirely on my side, embarrassed on my behalf for the rudeness of the accuser.

Yet in the following four hours, doubt began to seep in. I slowly peeked back into the past, and realized that in fact I had taken some material, used it, and somewhere along the line forgotten to include the original citation. My accuser was right – to my horror!

By the end of the day, I publicly apologized to my hosts, and to the accuser.

I felt bewildered: what was happening to my memory, my ethics – my sanity.

But I have since learned that Malcolm Gladwell was right. Memories are very tricky things.

It is not at all impossible to believe that both Kavanaugh and Ford are utterly sincere. It is extremely unlikely, in my opinion, that one of them is “lying,” in the sense that we usually mean.

And yet, we are about to play out in public what is billed as a morality tale – but what is really a humanity tale.

The Court of Binary Opinion

A public senate hearing is about the worst place to find “the truth” about what happened. It is high stakes; it is being proposed in very little time; the pressure is enormous; it is as public as can be; there has been almost no investigatory work done. And yet it appears we’re about to pit one fallible human’s memory against another – ostensibly in the search for “truth.” What a débâcle.

Why is such a polarizing event about to take place? In one way, it fits with the increasing narrative of us-vs-them politics of division that is overwhelming us.

In Jonathan Haidt’s new and excellent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, he and co-author Greg Lukianoff identify three Great Untruths. One of them is “We are Right, and They are Wrong.”

Polarization, tribalism, victimhood and blamethrowing are all the death of a reasoned democracy. This event – billed by each side as The Truth vs. The Liar – can serve no good purpose, but will be one more false binary division of good people.

What can you do? Don’t get sucked in. Recognize that memory is fickle, that people are not all good or all evil, that “the truth” is rarely black and white. Most of all, don’t view the political theater about to be served up as a morality play, but rather as a sad example of our failure to see people as human, and to deal with them in human-respecting ways.

 

 

Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Present Choices to Clients (Episode 7)

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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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