The S Trap: Is Self-orientation Destroying Your Trustworthiness?

Since The Trusted Advisor was first published in 2000, the most popular theme in the book has been the Trust Equation.

And within that equation, the factor that has stirred the most interest over the years has been the denominator, self-orientation. In the trust equation, since the S factor is in the denominator, a high level of self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. A low level of self-orientation serves to increase trustworthiness.

Self-Orientation Is About Focus

Self-orientation is essentially about our focus: is it on us or is it on them?

Our self-orientation is low (which is good) when our focus is on the other person, and it’s high (which is not good) when our focus is on us.

You’d think that, as people in professional services, we could confidently say our focus is nearly always on the client. If only that were true. High-self orientation creeps into our everyday interactions in all manner of sneaky and insidious ways.

The most obvious form of high self-orientation is when we are focused on our own goals/needs/desires above those of our client. Think of a stereotypical used-car salesman who will say anything to make the sale. Thankfully, because this form of self-orientation is so obvious, it is somewhat rare in professional services.

More common in professional services are the subtler, more insidious examples of high self-orientation: wanting to be right, wanting to be the one to solve the problem, subtly competing for attention and recognition, or wanting to be liked.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of high self-orientation can tip into self-obsession. Especially when we go into a situation anxious, or stressed, or lacking confidence, sometimes we just can’t get out of our own heads.

When we are so focused on what others think of us, there’s no space left for us to think about them.

High Self-orientation Diminishes Trust

When we are operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our own head drowns them out.

The psychology goes like this: if your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they feel safe and are likely to trust you.

Conversely, if your attention is focused on yourself, others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they deem you less trustworthy.

We can test our S by asking ourselves if what we are saying or doing is truly in service to the relationship, vs. in service to ourselves.

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

Selfishness is zero-sum – I get what I want, and you do not – which is not the same as having high self-orientation. If you are selfish, you are probably pretty self-oriented. But you may also be highly unselfish, yet attached to the idea of others seeing you as unselfish. That is also high self-orientation.

Sometimes people equate low self-orientation with passivity or with willingness to give away business, cut price, or otherwise let the other party “win.” It means nothing of the kind.

A low self-orientation is critical to legitimate client focus. You cannot be focused on customers if you are obsessed with the activity in your own brain. Since client focus is a driver of profitability, this leads to a wonderful paradox: if you focus on achieving profitability by way of client focus, you will sub-optimize. Yet if you focus on the good of the client, rather than the funds you can extract from their accounts, you will achieve greater profitability – by treating it as a byproduct rather than as a goal.

Here’s a simple practical tool for avoiding high self-orientation: seek humility. That does not mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part IV): Double-Down and Ramp Up the Rational Trust Builders

The initial post of this blog series introduced what we called the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships, warning that focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” could lead to missed opportunities and damaging long-term consequences.

In that post, we pointed out that relationship-building and selling aren’t really different these days, in spite of what people are trying to tell you, and in spite of what your own fears are whispering—or maybe shouting—in your ear.

Using the trust equation as a framework, the second and third posts addressed the more emotional trust factors, self-orientation and intimacy.

In this final post, we invite you to consider how you might double down on your relationship EQ and ramp up your virtual IQ on the rational side of building trust – Reliability and Credibility – to strengthen your bonds with clients and colleagues when you can’t be together in person.

Reliability

It does not diminish the importance of reliability to say that it is the aspect of trust at which most professionals excel. This is the factor most likely to be done well by you (and your competitors). It is also the on factor of trust that requires time.

Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you. We tend to trust the people we know well, and assign less trustworthiness to those with whom we have not interacted. After Intimacy, Reliability is the second most powerful trust builder.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Make small promises. You don’t have to wait for a big “thing” to be delivered to flex your strong reliability muscles. Amp up the number of small promises you make. Give others more data points to assess your consistency/predictability by creating bite-sized “deliverables,” then consistently follow through.
  • When you miss a deadline or an expectation (and you will), say something about it ASAP. Clean up any residual messes and re-promise. Do this even for things that may seem small or inconsequential.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Communicate more, and more often. Absent a crisis, reliability is table stakes, and generally over-emphasized by professionals at the expense of other variables. During a crisis, its relative importance increases because of our basic human need for predictability. Consider how you might regularly communicate what you know about a situation, even if it’s little or nothing—the “regularly” is actually more important than the content of your message.

Credibility

Credibility isn’t just providing expert content. It’s expert content in conjunction with “presence,” which refers to how we look, act, and present our content.

Credibility is also about honesty and candor—saying what needs to be said, in spite of how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Be bold with your point of view. Initiate conversations, post opinions, publish articles. The “advisor” part of “trusted advisor” is just as important as the “trusted” part. Have the courage to put a stake in the ground. If not now, when?
  • Express passion for your work. Show more than just professionalism; show your genuine enthusiasm for what you do, and for what your clients do. Passion is something that everyone can benefit from expressing more, but it can be especially uplifting and impactful during a challenging time.
  • Be real about your limitations and errors. For example, be willing to say, “I don’t know,” straightforwardly and with a blend of confidence and humility. You’ll build credibility through honesty. And therein lies the plot twist/paradox: when you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as weakness, people see your strength.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Dial down the amount of content. The tendency to over-pack conversations and presentations is more damaging now that we’re all perpetually tired from having to engage in “constant gaze.” Think and apply “less is more” when it comes to content and give people more time to digest it and react to it.

Many professionals believe that being credible and reliable is enough to form strong trust relationships. While these two factors often provide the foundation for trust, they are only part of what forms the everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty that come with true trusted advisorship.

Winning trust requires that you do well on all four trust dimensions (in the client’s eyes).

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part III): Double-Down and Ramp Up Intimacy

In the first post of this four-part blog series, we introduced what we called the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships. For anyone seeking a “silver bullet” to build virtual relationships, focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” becomes an easy distraction from what really matters.

Now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ—not the other way around.

We introduced the trust equation in Part II of the series as a framework to do just that, sharing our favorite low self-orientation relationship builders (the 80%) and behaviors to incorporate specifically for virtual interactions (the 20%). Today look at the most powerful trust-building factor: intimacy.

Intimacy

The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals consider it a positive virtue to maintain an emotional distance from their clients. We believe that they do so not only at their own risk, but also to that of their clients.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Listen with earnest empathy. And then do it some more. And some more. Borrowing Charlie Green’s wise words: “Wow” is a complete sentence.” So is “Ouch,” and “Good on you!” Statements of empathy are ways of mirroring emotions, and empathy is key for connectedness and influence.
  • Create “small talk” moments. Neuroscientists teach us that something as simple as the exchange of pleasantries (like talk about the weather) produces feel-good chemicals in our brains that promote bonding. Go one step further and ask about the photo you see on the bookshelf behind them. Small talk can facilitate a big personal connection.
  • Dare to talk about feelings (yours and theirs). We all have them, and they’re a legitimate part of professional life. Steer towards first-person language when you focus on their feelings, as in, “I’m sensing hesitation” (compared to, “You’re hesitating”) or “If it were me, I think I’d probably feel …” (instead of, “You probably feel …”). Speak candidly about your own feelings, as in, “Well, I’m a little concerned about …,” or “At the risk of being the outlier, I’m not on board yet with this idea.”
  • Let others get to know you. For real. Now is not the time to err on the side of “buttoned up”; now is the time to connect meaningfully across our humanity. Fortunately, our collective context makes it both relevant and easier to reference our outside lives. Take emotional risks. Beware the temptation to make excuses or hide the truth—if you have to cut a call short to help your child with homework, be honest about it. Charlie also reminds us, “Don’t legislate cats out of the picture.”
  • Ask for feedback. Be proactive about seeking critique. Ask well crafted, open-ended questions that help with the inertia that most clients have to overcome to say something unfavorable. Be equally willing to take in their positive remarks. And don’t just ask about content and task; inquire about the quality of your relationship, too.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Seek greater (emotional) bandwidth. Try a higher medium of communication than you did six months ago. Debating over text versus email? Go with the one that’s a little riskier because it’s more intimate. Also remember the forgotten application embedded in our smart phones: the phone itself.
  • Attend to nonverbals more than before. We’re all at a massive communication disadvantage, far more consistently than we once were. Practice making regular “eye contact,” for example, which means letting them look you in the (camera) eye. Tune into—and make deliberate use of—the sight and sound senses that are still available: voice modulation, gestures, movement.

The behaviors that build intimacy—discretion, empathy and personal risk-taking— create emotional safety for the other person. Intimacy was already the most important factor in the Trust Equation, and in times of stress, it’s vastly more valuable.

In our final post of this series, we’ll explore increasing credibility and reliability in virtual relationships.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part II): Using the Trust Equation to Double-Down and Ramp Up

We recently introduced what we call the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships. In the first of this four-part blog series, we acknowledged that it’s anything but business as usual these days, but cautioned that focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” could lead to missed opportunities and damaging long-term consequences.

We concluded that now is the time for 80% focus on our relationship EQ and 20% focus on improving our virtual IQ—not the other way around.

That’s because how we interact may have changed, but what builds trusted relationships has not. True trusted advisorship demands that we find ways to make choices from our higher selves, not from our baser instincts, and not from our bag of virtual tricks.

The temptation to spend a lot of time and money on the technological equivalent of shiny objects becomes an easy distraction from what really matters, when our current reality is a call to lead with time-tested relationship principles and shore them up with virtual best practices.

Enter our old friend, the trust equation, as a framework to help us all do exactly that.

Many professionals believe that being credible and reliable is enough to form strong trust relationships. While these two factors often provide the initial foundation for trust, they are necessary but insufficient to form the everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty that come with true trusted advisorship. Trust has multiple dimensions: credibility, reliability, intimacy and lack of self-orientation. Winning trust requires that you do well on all four dimensions (in the client’s eyes).

Consider how you might double down on your relationship EQ and ramp up your virtual IQ to form everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty.

Self-Orientation

We begin with self-orientation because there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service and trying to help the client.

Unfortunately, your self-orientation is likely to be high right now, whether you realize it or not. On the other hand – so is everyone else’s.

We recognize – and will remember – those who are able to genuinely reach out beyond their own psyches and connect with others in such times.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Lead with your genuine caring as an individual. Reach out just to say hello and find out how they are. We’ve always advocated for this relationship-building practice, only now it’s more important than ever.
  • Lead with your genuine caring as an organization. Now is the time for rallying cries that are truly client-centric. Don’t let fear set your goals and choose your messaging.
  • Make generous offers. Propose something concrete that you can give away that would be helpful—resources, ideas, small bites of work that you can do remotely and not charge for. These are gestures, not discounts, and there are lots of ways to do this without compromising your fee/rate integrity.
  • Leave clients feeling good about themselves when they’re around you. It’s a favorite piece of David Maister wisdom: “You don’t make people want to spend time with you because they feel good about you. You do it by making them feel good about themselves when they are with you.” Think about how you might acknowledge or promote your clients—genuinely, of course.
  • Be rigorous about the rituals and practices that help you get and stay grounded. Zoom fatigue is real and everyone’s surge capacity is in short supply. Be intentional about managing your fear along with your overall well-being, and be a good role model for others in the process.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Plan for interaction/engagement every five minutes or so during virtual meetings. No, that’s not a typo. It’s far too easy for clients to get distracted when we’re together online, plus it’s harder to sense what isn’t being said, so we all have to work harder to be collaborative when virtual is our primary/only option. Have both tech-savvy and traditional tools at the ready and use them appropriately: annotate, chat, breakout, pause and reflect, and many more.

Finally, grant yourself the grace to realize that things are different . Recognize and acknowledge what you are experiencing, and manage your Self-orientation moving forward.

In Part III of this series, we’ll share what to double down on and what to ramp up to increase Intimacy in virtual relationships.

Trustworthiness and Teams

This post was co-authored by Sandy Styer and Noelle Mykolenko.

Trust is paramount to collaboration. In a team setting, we are called on to build trust with multiple people at once. This adds complexity because any action we take to create trust with one person may be closely viewed (and interpreted) by others with whom we are not directly interacting.

Core to of our way of thinking about trustworthiness is the Trust Equation, which describes trustworthiness through the four components of Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-Orientation. (Take our online Trust Quotient Self-assessment to see your trustworthiness strengths and opportunities.)

Applying the Trust Equation in a Team Setting

Some actions that demonstrate trustworthiness are particularly useful for the complexities of a team setting. Here are four specific ways to build trust and further collaboration in teams:

CREDIBILITY: When the team is first assembled, go beyond the usual organization-focused introductions [“I’m Jane Smith, a SR PM in the RV Division.”] and have each team member say something about what they bring to the group and what they hope the project outcomes will be. We believe in people whom we know something about; resume headlines are a weak form of credibility.

RELIABILITY: Be predictable and dependable in context of the team’s goals and culture. When you turn in a piece of work, refer back to the master schedule and how your piece relates. Adopt team norms and use common language (jargon and acronyms). Be consistent in how you interact with all team members, staying especially alert to actions that could be perceived as special treatment – favorable or unfavorable – based on role or organizational differences.

INTIMACY: When someone starts a call with: “So, how was everyone’s weekend?” really share something: “We had so much fun; my 5 year old daughter played T-ball in the back yard, and she was hilarious whacking at the ball and running around the bases.” We trust those who are willing to take the small personal risk of revealing something about themselves; encourage it through role-modeling and asking open-ended questions that can’t be easily answered by a simple “fine” or “ok.”

This goes for bad news too.  Be open about blocks you’re running into or delays you’re facing. It builds trust to admit something like “I’m struggling to identify the target audience is for this piece, which makes it hard to write.  Could we get consensus on this call?”  Such an admission also may be the best way to get the help you want and deserve.

SELF-ORIENTATION: When you’re with the group, be relentlessly present. Avoid multi-tasking, no matter how pressing your deadlines are or how relevant you think the conversation is to your area. Be equally attuned to opportunities for you to help other team members as you are for how they can contribute to the outcomes for which you are personally responsible.

When we work in teams, it’s easy to over-focus on our own outcomes, and in so doing we sometimes forget that the people with whom we’re working are people, and not just a means to our end.

A Virtual Wrench in the (Team)works

Today, whether it’s due to globalization or a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many more of us are working on virtual teams.

When we interact with others face-to-face, we send and receive all kinds of clues and indicators that help us assess trustworthiness, and by which we can show others they can trust us. Casual encounters in the hallway, tone of voice and body language, and small daily experiences all contribute to building trust. Face-to-face is high-bandwidth trust time.

With so much of the world now working in virtual teams, building trust among the members of a team who don’t look one another in the eye or share coffee every morning is an added challenge. See our recent blogpost about building trust in virtual settings.

While there are differences between working face to face in a team and working virtually, the practices in this blog post are effective for either situation. All of them revolve around remembering that we are part of a team that consists of other very real people, individuals in their own right who have contributions to make and goals to achieve.

 

Building Trust In A Crisis



Pandemic. Covid-19. Unprecedented. New normal…

… You can write the rest of this paragraph yourself – things have changed. Is there anything left to be written about it all?

Yes there is. It’s about trust. In particular – how do you manage interpersonal trust in professional relationships?  How have trust dynamics changed in working with and selling to clients? What about trust in management and leadership?

For over 20 years, Trusted Advisor Associates has helped professionals deepen trust with clients and colleagues. We built this page to share our most-relevant thinking on navigating trust in professional relationships during the current crisis.

Click on Areas of focus:



Emotional Components of Trust

In normal times, the emotional aspects of trustworthiness (Intimacy and Self orientation) are slightly more powerful than the non-emotional traits (Credibility & Reliability) See The Trust Equation to learn more.

Now, the importance of those emotional components is multiples more – since the overwhelming response to a crisis like this is an emotional one. Broadly speaking, we need to manage our Self-orientation and increase our Intimacy.

Self orientation

Your self-orientation is likely to be high right now, whether you realize it or not. On the other hand – so is everyone else’s.

We recognize – and will remember – those who are able to genuinely reach out beyond their own psyches and connect with others in such times.

Grant yourself the grace to realize that things are different . Recognize and acknowledge what you are experiencing, and manage your Self-orientation moving forward.

Resources

Intimacy & Empathy

Everyone deals with stress in their own way. You are unique – and so is everyone else.

Remember the acronym, N.A.P.A.L.M.: Not All People Are Like Me. Others’ experiences are likely to be different from yours, even if their circumstances appear to be similar.

In times of stress, empathy is rare: at the same time, it’s vastly more valuable.  The ability to truly understand (while not necessarily agreeing with) the other person’s situation creates emotional safety, or Intimacy, for the other person. And Intimacy was already the most important factor in the Trust Equation.

Resources



Virtual Communication & Leadership

The hallmark of the COVID-19 crisis is that it requires physical distancing. It raises to the forefront the question: How do you create trust at a distance? Those who figure that out now will be appreciated, effective, and successful going forward.

Resources

Above All Else…

Trust is personal. Organizations don’t build trust, people do.

Let us know what you’re experiencing, and how we can help the people in your organization build trust in these times of change. Please reach out. We look forward to the conversation.

Podcast Interview: The Importance of Trust in Remote Leadership

Richard Hsu, Director of the Partner Practice Group, interviews Charles H. Green, on the HSU Untied Podcast, for a deep dive discussion into how leaders can refine their trust and communication skills in this new, virtual business world.

Learn how to connect with and read your team better, virtually. Understand how Intimacy and Self orientation are more important than ever.

When It Really Is “Me, Not You”

We’ve all seen the movies, or worse still, possibly heard the words – “it’s not you, it’s me.”

A dramatic break up scene follows. We’re left in no doubt that the ‘you’ in the scenario was a) badly dealt with, and b) probably better off in the long run given that scoundrel ‘me,’ who is typically using the line as a cheap and insincere way to get out of the relationship.

But what if it’s true?

And what does that ‘breakup’ look like in the context of a business relationship? Many of us have had challenging client situations and relationships that just felt dysfunctional. And all too often we let ourselves believe that it is the other who is the problem, not our selves. The internal dialogue becomes “It’s not me – it’s you!”

It’s the reversal of the movie plot of the relationship breakdown. We start the blame game and potentially lose sight of what really happened. (And after all, what are business relationships other than just relationships with business as the context?).

My own “it really was me” moment played out over a year of frantic project delivery for a client with tight deadlines and ambitious goals; it involved a lot of shouting, mutual frustration and ultimately a breakup. Sound familiar?

I was saved from the worst of the blame game by a very astute new analyst in my consulting firm, who unknowingly helped bring the Trust Equation even more alive for me.

Was It Me or Was It Them?

I was a big advocate of the Trusted Advisor approach, and in fact had taught the material to many people over the years. I had a story for each aspect of Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self Orientation. The stories were the stuff of legends (in my own mind) and I could retell them with ease.

There was one – my go-to story – about ‘the challenging client and the breakup’ that I loved telling new hires. It had shock value and impact, and often provoked great discussion on the importance of balance in the trust equation. The story could last five minutes or 25 depending on the audience and the nuances added, but always ended, “….and that is how the client ruined our trusted relationship!”

That punchline came to an ignominious end one afternoon in a session with students in Kuala Lumpur. I had talked about how to demonstrate credibility with new ideas, reliability with delivery, and intimacy through shared experiences. After I went through my final go-to story about the client’s Self-orientation, an analyst put her hand up and asked, “You’ve talked a lot about what was in it for the client, but what did you want to get out of the relationship and project?”

A great question – and one I’d never examined. I knew I hadn’t enjoyed the project (successful though it was), and I knew the client was annoyed with me at the end (again, despite the good results) – but I’d never really examined the why. I had just thought “difficult client, next assignment please.”

Her next question went deeper. “It sounds like you just wanted to get off that project and didn’t care what happened to the client.” Ouch!

The Penny Drops – It Was Me After All

That evening I played back my own recollection of events. I realised that on at least three occasions I had thought only of my own objectives. First, I had wanted the project to be a success for me; I was looking for a promotion. Next, I had omitted inviting the client to a presentation we were making to their Board (the person was on holiday, but I could have asked them regardless). Finally, I had just wanted off the project – after all, it had been draining and challenging.

None of these instances may have been showstoppers on their own, but combined it meant my self-orientation was so poor that the client would had to have been made of stone not to distrust me. All those great results, all that thought leadership and intimacy had been slowly eroded by me wanting to achieve my goals – not theirs. The relationship had begun to break down – and all at the same time my inner voice was telling me, “It’s them not you!”

What a wake-up call for me, three years of believing they were the problem!

The next time I delivered the Trusted Advisor session the story hadn’t changed – but the punchline had. Instead of the casting the client as villain and me as the poor beaten up consultant, my conclusion was, “And this is how my self-orientation ruined a perfectly good trusted relationship.”

From time to time I still see that client in airports. We both acknowledge that it was a tough assignment, but we both know now that “It wasn’t you, it was me!” isn’t just a line in the movies. It’s real. And unlike in the movies, sometimes it’s really true.