Warren Buffett and Managing Through Trust

On March 30, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway announced David Sokol’s resignation. Buffett’s reputation quickly took a bit of a hit from the likes of Joe Nocera.

Nocera suggests it wasn’t the first time Buffett had tap-danced his way out of a tight spot; he cites the Salomon Brothers’ bond scandal in the 1990s, and the General Re dustup in the mid-2000s.

What’s Nocera’s point? He later elaborated that Berkshire Hathaway is run by “rules that are extraordinarily lax by the standards of good corporate governance…Standards and practices have to change.”

Do Trust Violations Invalidate Trust?

Nocera’s examples amount to once per decade over the last 30 years. Buffett’s reputation is probably pretty safe, because a great truism about trust isn’t true at all: you know, that bit about how trust is hard to gain, but can be lost in an instant? Not true: trust takes roughly as long to dissipate as it took to create (see Toyota, J&J, Madoff).

But Nocera’s reaction is the norm. Ethical problems? Time to double up on compliance, standards and practices, procedures.

Nocera is speaking for business when he sees violations of trust as prima facie evidence of the failure of trust as a strategy.

In this regard, he could not be more wrong.

Charlie Munger and Wisdom of Managing through Trust

Charlie Munger is Buffett’s much-less-in-the-press partner. Buffett credits Munger with at least half the wisdom of the two, and quotes him often.

Munger lives up to his reputation in a trenchant article[1] by Darden Professors Brian Moriarty and Edward Freeman:

In response to a question about whether Berkshire needs more compliance controls Munger said:

…the greatest institutions in the world…select very trustworthy people and then trust them a lot.” He added, “I think your best compliance cultures are the ones which have this attitude of trust, and some of the worst with the biggest compliance departments, like Wall Street, have the most scandals.”

To Munger’s comment: Amen.

The violation of trust by someone who was trusted does not justify giving up on a strategy of trusting. In fact, if you never have a violation, one has to wonder how real your trusting is.

If all of Wall Street ran themselves like Berkshire Hathaway, and had one scandal per decade, we’d all be vastly better off.

Instead, we have an institutionalized belief system that the solution to ethical problems is a set of adversarial business processes. Dealing with ethical issues solely via compliance departments is the best way to take the trust and ethics out of management.

And if the bar is set at once per decade by famous journalists thinking they are acting in service to greater trust in business–well, heaven help us.

[1] The article was in the Washington Post, though the Post will make you jump through hoops to get it. I’ve linked to the hoops.

A #TrustTip Highlight Reel

We’re counting down the days until “The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust,” a new book written by myself and Andrea Howe (to be published by Wiley Books, hitting the shelves on October 31) by lighting up the twittersphere with a series of daily Trust Tips.

You can find these snippets of insight on Twitter by using the hashtag (or pound sign) followed by TrustTip, like this: #TrustTip. Or, if you prefer, you can go straight to the source by finding us on Twitter at @AndreaPHowe and @CharlesHGreen.

We’ve had some good discussions on Twitter and would love for you to put your two cents in.

For those of you still averse to Twitter, we keep a running tab of all the Trust Tips right here on our site.

The Tips

The Tips are concise. They’re published every work day, helping to increase your trustworthiness and build better work relationships.

If you need to catch up, see our recaps of Tips #144-135 and #134-115. Below are #114-105.

Trust Tips Redux: #114–105

#114: Do you know your main customer’s kids’ names? Should you?

#113: Be relentlessly discreet; honor confidentiality

#112: An expectation is a premeditated resentment; stay curious and bemused

#111: Sign up for a Google alert on yourself and your firm: See yourself the way others see you

#110: Send a hand-written note of acknowledgment/thanks

#109: In conversation with your client, occasionally wait half a second longer before talking

#108: Offer to take notes in a meeting

#107: Tell your client something you appreciate about him/her

#106: The great thing about always telling the truth is you have only one version to remember

#105: The easiest, safest and most durable way to make others trust you is to actually be trustworthy–worthy of their trust

A Couple of My Favorites:

#112: An expectation is a premeditated resentment; stay curious and bemused

We all have ideas about what’s going to happen in the future; we couldn’t function without them. But when those ideas turn into expectations to which we become attached–when we start rooting for an outcome, twisting the evidence to support or even encourage a particular result–we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Just down the street from disappointment lives resentment; and resentment poisons everything.
Be light on your feet. If the home team loses, hey, it happens. If the sale didn’t come through, don’t let it ruin your sleep. If you didn’t get what you wanted, be grateful for what you got. Learn for the future, but don’t let the learning ruin today.

#109: In conversation with your client, occasionally wait half a second longer before talking

Sometimes we can be too eager to answer a question or solve a problem. Next time, don’t you be the one to fill that silent hole in space. If what you say sounds too rehearsed, even if it isn’t, trust begins to erode. Pausing, even for just a moment, can make a noticeable difference. Indicate that you’d like the other person to speak next. Not only will you seem more thoughtful, but you will be more so. And you’ll hear stuff.

Which tips did you find most meaningful?

We’ll be publishing more Trust Tips next week and every week to book publication. Share the wealth; tell others about #TrustTip—new tips posted every weekday at 8:30AM.

The Dishwasher’s Tale

During a recent conversation, a friend–General Counsel for a large listed company–mentioned that she does not feel appreciated by her CEO for all the work she does; and that feels disheartening.

How often do we hear this? Is this a gender issue? Do females need to feel workforce appreciation more than males?

A Little Appreciation

One of my biggest lessons in life came 30 years ago. I had time between University semesters. I wanted to travel to the country nearest Ireland, where I was studying, where they didn’t speak English. After getting a bus, boat, and train…I arrived at my destination: Belgium, where Flemish is the first language and French the second. Because of the language barrier, I had to work in a position that did not require customer contact.

Hence my job: dishwasher.

Day in and day out I washed glasses, dishes, pots and pans. I think it was the hardest job I have ever completed. Only one of the waiters would come up to me at the end of a shift to say ‘thank you.’ This simple, genuine ‘thank you’ was so warming to my soul that it would make me feel motivated enough to come back into work the next day. Luckily this was a summer job to fund my holiday travels and I only had to work there for one month. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have that job long term.

A Question of Perspectives

I walked away with from that job knowing what a huge difference it makes if someone feels appreciated. Ever since, I have tried to make a point of showing my appreciation–from my client, to the person in the office emptying the rubbish bins, to the lady in the bathroom at the airport cleaning the cubicles, to the tram driver when I get off at my stop and I leave via the door beside the driver.

Recently, I have become more aware of how many others do not do this. I asked colleagues in the office why they do not say ‘thank you’ to the person cleaning their rubbish bins. The answer was almost always, “It’s their job, why should I thank to someone for doing their job?” Maybe this is the perspective of the CEO at my friend’s company.

A Little Less Self-orientation

Imagine if we all proactively practiced genuine appreciation–what a wonderful world we would live in. It reminds me of one lesson of the Trust Equation; that as we empathetically reach out to others by giving them a sense of importance, we simultaneously reduce our own self-orientation.

An old Chinese proverb says it all “Flowers leave some of their fragrance on the hand that bestows them.”

When we make people feel good about themselves we elevate ourselves to greatness as well.

You’ll take this deal and like it: the limits of rational trust, part 3

In the previous posts I discussed four ways in which rational trustworthiness, that is, the decision to be trustworthy because it is seen to pay off in the long run, breaks down. Today I’ll take a look at the last type of trust breakdown: the dominant strategy.

In game theory a dominant strategy is one a move or series of moves you can perform without the other players being able to stop you. Dominant strategies won’t necessarily leave you as well off as cooperative ones, though they can, what they are is things you can do and force the other players to accept.

In the business and commercial worlds dominant strategies are usually the purview of monopolies and oligopolies. If there are only one or a few businesses providing something you need, whether that’s insurance, internet or credit cards, you accept the price and service offered, or you do without. In the old days this used to be called the company store syndrome, where you had to use company scrip at the company store, and the company store was often the only store in your town. You paid what they charged, you bought what they offered, or you did without.

The dominant strategy relies not just on having an oligopoly or monopoly, but on having a product that some group of people must have. In the modern world there are a pile of things you can’t do without a credit card. Going without internet or phone service isn’t an option for most people, and while many people do go without insurance, most people would rather not. Companies which are in this position: no real competition, and a product which people must have, do not need to act trustworthy. Rational trustworthiness is not a factor for them, because they usually don’t believe they’d do better by being trustworthy, and even if they would, doing so is more work than simply saying “this is the product, this is the price, take it or leave it, no one else is going to give you a better deal.”

Which brings us back to the original point, which is that organizations or people who are trustworthy only because it is rational, only because it is to their advantage, aren’t actually trustworthy. The second it is in their interest to betray, they will do so. This may be because they can cash out, because they won’t be in the business for long, because they’re not long for the world, because enforcement mechanisms have broken down or because you’re lunch, not a customer, but whatever the reason, trust that is rational isn’t actually trust.

(Read part one and part two for the details on each way that rational trust breaks down.)

Muses: Really Entertaining Business Blogs by Women

Some of the most entertaining, content-rich and downright helpful business blogs we love are written by women. Here are a few of our favorites. What are yours?

Danah Boyd’s Apophenia is both scholarly and immensely readable. She has real research, real clues and real heart about what’s going on with young social media consumers. Want to know what ‘privacy’ means to teens? Read it and feel smart.

The Barefoot Executive, Carrie Wilkerson, speaks directly to entrepreneurs about such things as the 3 “I”s common to business owners: indecision, insecurity and inactivity. If the shoe fits…add Carrie to your feedly.

Laurie Ruettimann, thecynicalgirl, is the funniest woman on the planet, with no-nonsense (she would say, no bullshit) advice on careers, recruiters, what working means, HR, deodorant, open-toed shoes and cats.

We almost hate to mention Michelle Golden’s Golden Practices Blog, because her posts are infrequent and we’d like a lot more of them, but they are also thoughtful, thought-provoking and full of heart.

In Nina Nets it Out, Nina Simosko covers topics for leaders of all stripes – recently “leaders should do what only they can do.” Simple, straightforward and with many aha moments!

Maureen Rogers writes Pink Slip Blog from Boston, but manages to range all over the world in her writings on layoffs (you knew that from the blog title), the workplace, management and other stuff. Cuban cigars. Yep. McDonalds’ National Hiring Day. Yep. Baseball. But of course.

Chock full of podcasts, webinars and video clips, Jill Konrath’s Selling to Big Companies helps everyone adapt their sales techniques to the Twitter era. This blog is all killer and no filler with plenty of guest bloggers offering their two cents.

And for a longer list, see Natalie MacNeil’s top 30.

Who do YOU love?

The Limits of Rational Trust: Part 2

Last week we talked about how rational trust, which is to say, being trustworthy because it can be shown that being trustworthy leads to more money or other benefits, can break down, either because a the person involved knew they wouldn’t be around for the long term, or because the reward for betraying a trust was so great that they could cash out.

Other failures of rational trust are:

  • When you’re not at the table, but on the table;
  • when the social mechanisms of reputation and deterrance break down;
  • when someone has a dominant strategy, something they can force on other people.

This post we’ll discuss not being at the table, and the breakdown of social mechanisms of trust.

Are you the roast beef being carved up?

It is rational to be trustworthy to people who are your customers because you want repeat business. But often even if you’re buying something, you aren’t the customer. So, for example, who are the customers for credit cards?

Here’s the odd thing about credit cards. Credit cards which charge merchants more, and that therefore also cost consumers more, since merchants have to pass those costs on, are the ones that are chosen by banks to be offered. Chosen by banks is the key phrase. Almost everyone gets their credit card through their bank. The banks control the pipeline, therefore the banks are the actual consumers. They, and the credit card companies are at the table, retailers and consumers are on the table. The real customer for credit cards isn’t consumers, and it isn’t businesses, who feel they must accept them or give up huge amounts of business, instead it is the banks. Since this is the case, it is rational to charge consumers and businesses more, not less, because the more you charge them, the more you can give to the real customer, the banks, who can deliver what amount to captive audiences.

Just because you’re buying something doesn’t mean you’re the customer, it just means you are paying.

Heads I win, tails you lose!

The next failure point of rational trust is when the social mechanisms for enforcement break down. If CEOs can materially misrepresent their company’s positions, and still be paid millions, if outright systemic fraud can occur throughout an industry, for example, mortgage origination and packaging during the housing bubble, and virtually no one is charged with a crime, and many of the companies which engaged in the fraud are bailed out at taxpayer expense, then why shouldn’t they engage in fraud?

Call it “heads I win, tails you lose”. If I know that I’ve done so much damage that the entire world’s economy is at risk, well, what’s to fear? On Wall Street they used to call this the “eat babies” scenario, which is to say, if the government didn’t step in, things would be so dire that everyone would be eating babies. Apocalytpically bad. Now, one can argue over whether failing to bail out Wall Street would have been so bad (I don’t think so), but it certainly seems the prime actors thought it would be, and unquestionably many actors at the Federal Reserve, Treasury and in power in DC thought it would be.

In capitalism, the joke runs, bankrupt companies go out of business. On Wall Street, they get bailed out. The political mechanism, which is ultimately a social mechanism, for enforcing law and basic capitalist principles broke down.

This has far less grandiose forms than the late financial crisis. It occurs any time when breaches of trust will not materially affect someone’s ability to continue to operate in business and to make money. If the social circle one moves in doesn’t care about breaches of trust or ethics, then it is rational not to care about either. Rational trust is about consequences, if the consequences are less than the benefits, why be trustworthy?

Next post: Dominant strategies, or “you’ll take this deal because you have no choice.”

Counting Down the #TrustTips: Daily Tweets on Trust

In celebration of the “The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust” a new book written by myself and Andrea Howe in partnership with Wiley Books, we’ve been tweeting a series of Daily Trust Tips.

Andrea and I tweet one #TrustTip per business day, counting down until publication day, October 31. You can access these daily trust tips on Twitter, by using the hashtag (or pound sign) followed by TrustTip. Like this: #TrustTip. You can find us on Twitter at @AndreaPHowe and @CharlesHGreen.

The Tips

We try to stay away from platitudes. They’re meant to be precise and provocative, things you can apply today to enhance your trustworthiness and build stronger, more trusting relationships.

And if that still isn’t enough to motivate you to get on Twitter, we keep a running list of all the #TrustTips right here on our site.

The past two weeks of tips have sparked a good deal of talk on Twitter. Below is the recap of Tips #134-115. You can find the recap of #144-135 here.

Trust Tips Recap: #134– #115

#134: The purchasing agent is your new client. Treat them so. Their needs go beyond beating you up.

#133: If you feel odd about something: notice it. Say it out loud. Talk about it. Trust your gut.

#132: Don’t say what you’ll do, do it. Doing is the best talking. Sell by doing, not by talking.

#131: When you don’t know the answer: say, “I don’t know the answer.” What a concept.

#130: Don’t lie. Don’t fake it. Don’t justify it. Don’t leave things out. Don’t mislead. Don’t lie. Don’t.

#129: Easy way to increase reliability: say you’ll do something—then do it. On time.

#128: Under-promised and over-delivered means you’re lying. Better to do exactly what you said you’d do.

#127: Over a drink, ask your client what (s)he thinks their boss most wants from them.

#126: Dress code: one tiny notch higher than your client—no less, but no more either.

#125: Subscribe to your 2nd biggest customer’s 2nd most important industry trade publication.

#124: Adopt the safest cultural time standard: if you’re on-time, you’re late.

#123: Return calls unbelievably fast. You can wait to get the fix, but return the call unbelievably fast.

#122: Make lots of small promises & consistently follow through.

#121: Announce changes immediately & acknowledge the impact—especially when you won’t deliver as promised.

#120: Don’t just not lie; tell as much truth as possible, except where hurtful to others.

#119: Use pre-meetings; the final meeting should be ceremonial, no surprises.

#118: Identify some of your customers’ unique terminology; if it fits, use it yourself.

#117: Five credentials after your name on the business card is three too many.

#116: Give your meetings goals—not just agendas.

#115: In a meeting, notice who looks like they want to say something. Ask them to do so.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

# 129, Easy way to increase reliability: say you’ll do something—then do it. On time.

How many times have we been reliant on someone to get their job done in order for us to complete ours? It starts in middle school—from home-made science projects—and carries through to our professional lives. Efficient teamwork is part of every successful business. That teamwork extends outside of your office and into your client’s. Your client’s ability to rely on you to get the job done when you say you will makes for a smooth relationship, where no matter what, they feel they can trust you. Reliability is one of the four key factors in the Trust Equation, and one of the key factors we reference in any recommendation.

#116, Give your meetings goals—not just agendas.

Meetings seem to be a way of life when it comes to maintaining a steady business. It’s a practice that we all acknowledge for its necessity but in a way, seem to dread. Why is that? Many times meetings abide by a checklist of items to be discussed but after just thirty minutes minute details start taking over and the overall goals are lost. Creating goals as well as agendas for your meetings allows for the bigger picture to be maintained. It’s important to ensure everyone feels that they aren’t losing valuable time doing something else while they are listening to you veer off course.

#131, When you don’t know the answer: say, “I don’t know the answer.” What a concept.

It is amazing how simple this concept is–yet how few people subscribe to it. One of the quickest ways to reduce your customer’s trust in you is to answer their question incorrectly or to dodge it entirely. The reverse is ironically true as well: if you truthfully answer a question—especially if the answer is, “I don’t know”—they will trust you in that moment, and from then on as well.

Which ones did you find most meaningful?

We’ll be publishing more #TrustTip next week and every week to book publication. Share the wealth; tell others about #TrustTip—new tips posted every weekday at 8:30AM.


The Limits of Rational Trust: Part 1

The business case for being trustworthy is often extraordinarily pragmatic. Be trustworthy, and in the long run you’ll make more money. The case for this is grounded both in common sense, because people like to do business with those they can trust, and in game theory, which notes that while it’s rational to betray people in short run, if you’re going to run into them again, or into people they may have talked to, well, it’s probably a good idea to act like someone they’d like to do business with, as opposed to someone they don’t trust even as far as they can throw them.

Act trustworthy, which is to say, do what you say you will and take care of the other person’s interests, and it will rebound to your favor.

This works, as Charles H. Green has noted, right up until the point that it’s not rational to act in a trustworthy fashion. If someone is trustworthy only because it’s in their best interests to be so, the second it isn’t worth it, they won’t be. Unfortunately a lot of people are only trustworthy to the extent that it’s good for them, not you.

If you have to deal with such people, and we often do, it’s good to understand exactly what the limits of rational trust are. Rational trust of the game-theory variety breaks down in five main ways:

  • when it’s no longer the long term;
  • when someone can cash out;
  • When you’re not at the table, but on the table;
  • when the social mechanisms of reputation and deterrance break down;
  • when someone has a dominant strategy, something they can force on other people.

Today I want to talk about the first two. In game theory there’s a big difference between games which go on forever, and games which have an end. There comes a point in a person or organizations career or life where there isn’t a long term. Perhaps they’re about to retire. Perhaps they know they have little time to left to live. In economics this often called a “death bet”, which is to say, a bet that by the time the bill arrives, you’ll be dead. If I die owing millions, having lived well, and I don’t care about leaving any heirs money, what exactly did it cost me? If I betray a trust, knowing I’ll never need to do business with that person again, and that whatever they say about them doesn’t matter because I’ll be retired, moved thousands of miles away, or, well, dead, again, there is no cost to me.

The second type of rational untrustworthiness is related to the first. If, by betraying you, someone can make enough money that they don’t need you in the future, then there is no future. They don’t need to worry about their “relationship”, because the relationship with their money is all that matters. The more highly compensated people are, the more this is true. During the housing bubble, huge amounts of mortgage fraud occurred because the participants were making so much money. When, in two to five years someone can make enough money to retire one, if they act ethically only for rational reasons, well, there is no reason to. If the mortgages or CDOs or CDSs are going to blow up after they’ve made as much money as they need to make, then trustworthiness goes out the door. If, on the other hand, they were making a hundred thousand a year and will need the job for 20 years, well, that might matter, but in the short term, fast road to riches environment, it doesn’t.

In both these situations you’ll notice that what has happened is that the social time horizon has gone from long to short. Either way, the person involved no longer needs to worry about the long run, so the rational foundation of trust has gone away. They don’t need to be trustworthy, it no longer benefits them.

Whenever a business or society sets up rewards so that the long run disappears, and all that matters is the short run, people who are trustworthy only because it’s what’s good for them will become less so. Indeed they very likely will become actively untrustworthy. As a client or consumer dealing with people who are rationally trustworthy, you must ask yourself always, “is this person going to keep needing me? If not, do they at least fear me telling other people they are untrustworthy?” If the answer to both questions is no, then you can’t trust them.

I’ll touch on other failures of rational trustworthiness in future posts, for now, the point is simple enough: anyone who’s trustworthy only because they need your future business is no longer trustworthy the second they don’t.

Beyond Work-Life Balance: Bedtime Stories

The other night I met Kevin. Kevin is a late forty-something career consultant; for all but a few years of his career, he spent his work-weeks in various cities away from his wife and son.

Yet he and his son are very close. Kevin consciously developed rituals for the two of them and faithfully followed them.

For years, Kevin read books to his son. Every night. Long distance. As he put it:

Every book I’d buy, I’d buy two copies. We went through all the Harry Potter series together, and a ton more.

We had a standing routine. Every night at 7:30PM his time, I’d call him, we’d each open up our copies of the book, and I’d read.

If I was in a hotel, no problem. If I was driving, I’d pull over. If I was driving with a colleague, I’d ask the colleague to drive for half an hour while I read to my son.

It was great. It was a regular thing, a routine; I knew I had his attention, and he had mine. I really enjoyed that time.

How did that work out? Kevin says he has a rich, warm relationship with his son, now 17. I look at the glow in his eyes and his smile when he tells me about it, and I believe him.

Alert! 4 days to deadline for Trust in Business story contest!

Alert! Approaching Deadline for Trust in Business story contest is May 13th.

You’ve been part of our blog for so long: now be part of our book!

Thank you to everyone who responded to our call for submission for the Trusted Advisor Fieldbook Story Contest! If you haven’t entered yet, we want to remind you there are just 4 days left to send in your own story about trust in business or organizational life and win great prizes, including publication in the upcoming Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


1. All submissions will be entered in a drawing for a first edition copy of our new book The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. One book will be awarded for every seven entrants!

2. The top 3-5 stories will be selected for publication in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. Authors will receive a full autographed set of all Charlie’s books, plus a first edition copy of the new Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, autographed by co-authors Charles H. Green and Andrea Howe.

3. Honorable Mentions will be featured in the Trust Matters blog.

We recognize that the main reason you’ll contribute is to share your insights with others. We look forward to publishing your story and connecting you with the audience you deserve.

The May 13 deadline is coming up fast. Send your stories in now!

Trust in Business Story Contest Guidelines

1. Deadline: 9PM EST, May 13, 2011

2. Length: 400 words.

3. Theme: Tell us an original story about an experience that you personally had or witnessed, reflecting an aspect of trust in business or organizational life. (No previously published stories, please).

Settings could include (but aren’t limited to):

  • sales,
  • customer relationships
  • internal politics
  • recruiting
  • reputation

Subjects could include (but aren’t limited to):

For examples of the sort of original, first-person stories we’re looking for, see these posts on Trust Matters:

4. How to Submit: Send your story in any digital format to to ahowe at trustedadvisor dot com. We may (probably will) further edit any stories you provide, but we will review those edits with you; we will only publish what you’re comfortable with.