Trusted Advisor? Or Just Not a Crook?

The term “trusted advisor” has been around a long time.  Recently I wrote about how the phrase has undergone “trusted advisor inflation” and become far more casually used.

When Maister, Galford and I wrote the book The Trusted Advisor back in 2001, one of our aims was to debunk the idea that trust was mainly about competence, credentials and cognition. We said:

..becoming a good advisor takes more than having good advice to offer. There are additional skills involved, ones that no one ever teaches you, that are critical to your success…you don’t get the chance to employ advisory skills until you can get someone to trust you enough to share their problems with you.

The theme of this book is that the key to professional success is not just technical mastery of one’s discipline (which is, of course, essential), but also the ability to work with clients in such a way as to earn their trust and gain their confidence.

We went on to say:

The trusted advisor is the person the client turns to when an issue first arises, often in times of great urgency, a crisis, a change, a triumph or a defeat.

Issues at this level are no longer just seen as organizational problems, but also involve a personal dimension. Becoming a trusted advisor, the pinnacle level, requires an integration of content expertise with organizational and interpersonal skills.

That was then (2001). To my astonishment, it appears that not everyone in the world has read our book and committed it to memory. (Imagine that.)

Thin Trust

That’s not the way a lot of the world has come to use the term “trusted advisor.” The following quotes are taken from current promotional literature:

Full disclosure of conflicting interests is the only way to build and keep trust with your clients.

For decades, CPAs in public practice have laid a foundation of trust with clients by competently handling confidential financial data and performing core services such as tax preparation.

There has been much talk about how accountants should embrace value based, business improvement services so that they can step up and truly embrace their trusted advisor status. Yet little has been written on how to go about doing that in a way that sits firmly within the accountant’s heartland – the numbers.

A trusted adviser offering objective solutions in wealth structuring based on XYZ Research and industry leading global resources…who understands clients’ specific investment needs, structure and area of interest…the trusted advisor is complemented with a team of financial experts and corporate resources.

As your trusted advisor, XYZ delivers a wealth strategy service to manage the financial complexities in your life.

Your loan closing is just the beginning of our relationship.  Annual mortgage reviews and rate watches are just a few of the benefits XYZ provides to their clients.   That is why __ will not only be your mortgage Planner, but your Trusted Advisor as well.

I’m deliberately not providing links here because I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, but rather to make a simple point: the idea of a “trusted advisor” as synonymous with nothing more than competence, credentials and procedural compliance clearly lives on.

Who should you trust? According to these views, someone who’s been vetted by the industry, many will tell you. How will you know you can trust them? By the number of letters after their name, or by the stress tests they’ve passed. Or in some cases, by the way they are paid (via fees, rather than transactional commissions).

Let’s be clear: basing trustworthiness on whether or not one structurally faces financial temptation is a pretty low hurdle. It reminds me of Nixon’s famous utterance, “I am not a crook.”

Barring someone from temptation doesn’t create deep trust in them. While avoiding conflict of interest is a good thing, it’s entry-level stuff.  We reserve deeper trust for those who face temptation, and who nonetheless rise above it through ethics and character.

The bar for being a trusted advisor is higher than not being a crook, being competent, and passing industry equivalents of drug tests.

Reclaiming Trust

A few years ago, we wrote a White Paper: If You Think Competency Sells, Think Again. In it we provided research proving what Maister, Galford and I had claimed a decade earlier: that the dominant factors driving trustworthiness are not competence, business acumen and procedural rigor.

The more powerful drivers of trustworthiness are, in fact, the ‘softer’ side of things: the “intimacy” and “other-orientation” factors we identified in the trust equation.

It may have become fashionable to deny it, but human wiring has not changed in the last decade; we are still prone to trust those we feel secure confiding in, and those whom we feel have our best interests at heart.

They’re only beginning to teach that at business schools (Bill George is an exception). And you will not find it by mastering documented procedures or by improving your business acumen.


Chemical Trust and the Science of Explanation

The Wall Street Journal this weekend scored a lot of views with an article on Oxytocin titled, “The Trust Molecule,” by Dr. Paul Zak.

Dr. Zak makes one critical, powerful point about trust – its reciprocal nature.  Unfortunately, the article is seriously flawed in its approach to what it calls “the new science of morality.”

Science, schmience.

But let’s start with that one good point.

Reciprocal Trust

In discussions about trust, people frequently forget a very simple fact: like tango, it takes two to trust. One party does the trusting, the other party is the one trusted. Risk is taken by the one doing the trusting, and the one who is trusted is the source of that risk.

Critically, the interaction between the trustor and the trustee is reciprocal. One influences the other.

Dr. Zak says, about how to trigger this reaction:

…all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money—the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more…trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…

So right! But where Zak goes wrong is in thinking that by identifying the role of oxytocin, he’s actually explained something.

Chemistry as Explanation

Zak says flat out in the article that oxytocin is an explanation for a variety of human phenomena:

“Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men.” (italics mine)

It is no such thing.

For example, Zak hardly discovered the reciprocal nature of trust.

More than half a century ago, Henry Stimson said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” Before that, Ralpho Waldo Emerson said, “Trust men and they will be true to you.” I doubt either knew of oxytocin.

Much more importantly, calling oxytocin an explanation for trust is like saying you can explain water by translating the word into the French eau.

What Makes For an Explanation

Philosophers (and good scientists) have for millennia suggested that good explanations fit certain criteria. A good explanation might put things in a larger context, as Darwin did with evolution. Or it might suggest a causal link, like tying cigarette smoking to cancer, or lack of hand-washing to sepsis in hospitals. Or, it might shed light on motives, as does the ending of any good TV crime drama.

What Mr. Zak has done is nothing of the kind. He has merely “translated” pieces of wisdom that humans have known for ages into the language of chemistry.

There is a nearly infinite number of ways we can describe any particular phenomenon. I can use the “languages” of poetry, reporting, drama, song, chemistry, and Freudian psychology – all different ways to describe the same underlying phenomena. None have a monopoly on telling the “why” – they are only variations on “how?”

The only relevant question to be asked among these choices is – which is more useful for the task at hand?

Yet Dr. Zak seems to believe he’s on to something. As he puts it:

“After centuries of speculation about human nature and how we decide what is the right thing to do, we at last have some news we can use…many group activities—singing, dancing, praying—cause the release of oxytocin and promote connection and caring.”

The idea that prayer can promote connection and caring, for example, is hardly new.

I fear that Dr. Zak is but one example of the current faddish approach to things neurological. Putting “neuro-” in front of a topic seems to generate groupie-like behavior in business. Hence we have neuro-marketing, neuro-advertising, neuro-leadership – the list is endless.

But like the Emperor’s new clothes, there’s not much ‘there’ there. Not all description deserves to be called an “explanation.”

Though whatever language you say it in, trusting someone does cause them to be more trustworthy

Trust in the Search Business: the Bowdoin Group

The Bowdoin Group is a mid-sized executive recruiting firm based in New England. Sean Walker is a partner at Bowdoin, and heads their Information and Media Division. We met over seafood at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central a few months ago.

I’ve always felt that executive search is one of those “perfect” trusted advisor businesses – like pharmaceutical reps, wealth managers and client managers in accountancies. Perfect in potential, that is; perfection is not the norm in any of those businesses, and far from it in some.

Sean and Bowdoin look like exceptions: they “get it,” and practice the principles of trust, as you’ll see.


Charlie Green: Sean, you just lost a big sale; you’re disappointed, but clearly not upset. What’s up with that?

Sean Walker: It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the relationship. We’ve got three other projects working in that organization, and they like us. This one just wasn’t right for them, hence not for us either.

Charlie: So how do you think about this business?

Sean: We don’t think of it as skills-based, and we don’t think of it as project-based. We have to have domain expertise – industry knowledge, networks and so on – but we equally well have to work the relationship. The most important thing we do – and often the hardest – is to approach this business strategically.

Charlie: Can you say more about what that means to Bowdoin?

Sean: It means some of what you write about; you never do a deal or a job or a project – you develop an ongoing relationship, which contains jobs along the way.

When we fail, it’s almost always because we started to follow our own agenda, falling in love with the results, the process. When we get it right is when we remember to listen and learn; to be a human capital advisor, helping them to build their organization.

And the funny thing is, the more you focus on the strategy, the better the tactical results happen to get.

Charlie: How do you deal with the fact that many clients are seeking you out as transactors, looking for a candidate, measuring your lead lists?

Sean: Some clients are like that, some are not, and some can evolve along with us. The client we just lost that project for is a great client – their sales guy wants us to partner with them to create a new organization.

And clients, just like us, can learn to behave more strategically. People can be very short-sighted, but if you take the time to understand the person you’ve got on the other end of the line, if you can get some one to be intimate and speak to you about their fears, you can solve not only the immediate issue in front of them, but you can understand both them and the company better. Then you can get to the core. And then it flows.

Charlie: You said it’s hard to keep focused; what are some of the pitfalls, or temptations, along the way?

Sean:  Oh gee, let’s see. Goals and targets, if you’re not careful. Clients that want to treat you transactionally, price-haggle, are short-term focused. An industry that, more often than not, thinks opportunistically–hopping from opportunity to opportunity.

Charlie: Where does trust fit here?

Sean: It’s all around. It’s the business, if you do it right. The fact that people let you in and give you that trust, it makes it all worthwhile.

Charlie: What do you say to those who say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but you’ve got to make money.”

Sean: They are so missing the point. This way of doing business is 100% more profitable – and it can make your job much easier. Because once you’ve proven yourself, the business comes back to you–you’re not always jumping from opening to opening.

If you take the time up front, it pays off all along the line, across multiple decision-makers. When we fall of the strategic trust wagon, that’s when our profitability goes wrong.

Charlie: Sean, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck, but I bet you don’t need it.

Sean: Thanks Charlie, it’s been a pleasure likewise.


Trust Me, I’m Your Doctor

We all hear about health care. Usually it’s through the microcosm of someone’s illness, or the macro-view of dueling pundits and politicians. Frequently it’s adversarial, or negative.

Thanks to long-time Trust Matters’ own trusted advisor Shaula Evans, I met Dr. Craig Koniver. He brings a fascinating perspective to the topic, as you’ll see.


Charlie Green: Craig, you’re a doctor in South Carolina. Are you a native?

Craig Koniver: No. I grew up in Delaware, went to one year of undergrad at Johns Hopkins, hated it, and transferred to Brown. I then went on to medical school at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. So I did end up being a doctor, mostly in Arizona, and recently moved here.

Charlie: You say you practice “organic medicine.” How did you come to that?

Craig: First of all, I am a “regular” doctor, board-certified and all that, but I also came to believe in a certain approach to medicine. The transformative event in my life was when our daughter was colicky.

The pediatrician said what I’d been trained to say, but since it was our daughter this time, we were wholly unsatisfied. We went out and found unconventional approaches to the issue. And once you’ve seen behind the curtain, it’s hard to stop.

Charlie: What is behind the curtain?

Craig: The standard routine is label, diagnose, prescribe medicine or surgery. Repeat, repeat, repeat. The paradigm of modern medicine is medicine-based, which is to say, pharmaceutical – pills and chemicals.

100 years ago this was not the case; the doctor had a relationship with the patient. But today, the doctor is trained to see the patient as a series of chemical pathologies.

Charlie: So, on a practical level, what do you do differently than other doctors?

Craig: I am interested in helping the patient reach optimal health through natural means. I am not against prescription medicine, but I think they are highly over-utilized by doctors not interested in pursuing alternative/ natural modalities.

So with my patients we look for the root cause of disease by running specialty lab tests and then use herbs and vitamins and nutrients to get their health back on track. I am a firm believer that there is a natural option for everything–we just have to look in the right place and be willing to try any different options.

Charlie: What’s the effect on patient health?

Craig: One telling study suggested that as many as 1/3 of prescriptions get tossed away on the patient’s way out of the doctor’s building. They want more than a prescription, they want a relationship and they want options.

Charlie: What did you do as this became apparent to you?

Craig: I finally decided to move to a holistic practice. That entailed moving away from insurance, and cutting my patient load from about 4,000 to about 400.

Charlie: Wow. Now, hang on a minute; that raises all kinds of interesting issues. What does that say for coverage?

Craig: It affects many people differently. First, there are a large number of people who are quite willing to pay for personalized, holistic healthcare. It is quite valuable to them!

In addition, remember that existing health insurance policies don’t generally cover doctors suggesting things like exercise and nutritional changes; as well, procedures like bypass surgery are reimbursed while time-tested acupuncture is not.

And I now get to spend real, quality time with my patients. I take as much time as I want and they want, and they leave satisfied feeling that I’m concerned about their whole life.  Which I am! A lot of people find this hugely valuable.

Charlie: What about those who can’t afford it?

Craig: Before we get there, there are number of people who may or may not be able to afford it, but don’t see the value in it. They’re used to thinking that a doctor visit should cost the amount of a co-pay. They can’t get past a more cost-based model.

Are there those who are left out by this? Absolutely there are and it’s a real tragedy because they continue to get the acute-based, chemical-and-surgery, impersonal kind of medicine that doesn’t help them.

Charlie: Ah, interesting. You’re not a selfish doc going off to serve well-heeled patients, there really is no choice.

Craig: That’s true. I’m not abandoning poor people, I’m abandoning bad medicine. And the existing insurance system simply cannot support the kind of medicine I like to practice. Is it tragic? Yes, and a real shame.

You pretty much cannot have a holistic medicine practice that operates within the existing high-volume insurance-based delivery method we have today. The choice is not which clientele to go after – it’s which kind of medicine I want to practice.

Charlie: Does the patient-physician relationship of trust affect health?

Craig: Yes. Again, if the relationship is pill-based, then it’s not personal; that is not a good basis for trust. Before too long, patients will stop trusting a physician because there is only that basis for the relationship.

In a holistic practice, where by definition the doctor is concerned about the whole patient, you have the basis for a personal relationship. That means you have the basis for trust. And with trust, patients share more with you, they take your advice, and there is probably even the positive placebo effect.

Charlie: One implication of what you’re saying is that our existing approach, based on insurance reimbursement of pills and surgery, is basically built to minimize trust.

Craig: Yes, I think that’s an accurate statement of the current situation. The health care delivery system is tied to the doctor-patient trust level. And not in a good way just now.

Charlie: Well, this has been enlightening indeed; thanks so much for spending time with us.

Craig: Thank you, Charlie.

Market Segmentation Does Not Equal Trust

A piece from PharmaVoice caught my eye the other day. Titled Market Capitalization, it talks about how market segmentation can help pharma companies more precisely reach targeted audiences.

All well and good, until I saw this:

…just as personalized medicine is becoming a best practice for delivering optimal healthcare, personalized messaging to the physician audience is increasingly becoming a best practice for marketing.

Careful segmentation allows marketers to specifically target the audience with messages that speak directly to them. Segmentation helps deliver the right message to the right physician at the right time. Personalization shows physicians that they are intimately understood, which fosters trust and value.

No, it doesn’t.

Careful segmentation in messaging tells me there’s a better chance that your information will be relevant to me.

It does not tell me I’m intimately understood; it tells me you’ve got smart robots.

The difference matters.

Trust and Segmentation

Rifle-shot targeting and segmentation affects one out of four of the Trust Equation components: it speaks to your credibility. Credibility tells me you’re smart, credentialed, competent.

That’s helpful, indeed. But it doesn’t speak to the other three components: reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation – particularly the latter two.

The casual conflation of credibility and intimacy is, I think, a hallmark of modern marketers. Most of them, I suspect, would say, “Oh come on, Charlie, that’s just a small matter of semantics.”

Not so. Our words belie our thoughts. When we easily slide from a mechanical formula to a claim of “intimate understanding,” we have lost something. And to trivialize the slide is to lose even more.

Trust and Understanding

The dynamic of personal trust is complex; part of it is rational and deductive. But much of it is psychological, interior, calling on other-than-frontal-lobe kinds of brain functions.

That sense of being connected, appreciated, and validated leads us to lower our guard, to accept deeper relationships, and be open to advice-giving, among other things.

In this sense of the word, we come to trust by way of being understood; and we come to be understood through the means of other people intentionally paying attention to us.

This business of paying attention to other people is what drives personal trust creation. Marketers using technology to develop rifle-shot segmentation schemes are doing perfectly good and useful work. But not in their wildest dreams does this make customers feel “intimately understood, which fosters trust and value.”

Please, marketing and communications people, let’s try and remember the difference.

Story Time: It’s Trust, Therefore It’s Personal

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on ways to lead with trust. Our last story illustrated how one conversation changed everything. Today’s selection highlights  the value of making a personal connection.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on selling to the C-suite. It vividly demonstrates the value of paying attention to more than just the task-at-hand, and taking the risk to put personal before business.

From the Front Lines: Taking a Chance on Connection

Gary Celli tells a story of the business value of building trust quickly with a C-level client.

“I was working in California for a multi-national high-tech company. I was a project manager at the time, and the project I was leading was rife with difficulties—nothing atypical, just the usual stuff. We were also trying to position additional work with the customer.

“One day, the CIO asked specifically to meet with me. Until that point I had been dealing with his directors, so he and I hadn’t spent any time together beyond a brief interaction at the big project kickoff meeting. You can imagine I was a little on edge about the meeting.

“The first thing I noticed when I arrived at his office was what a mess it was. There were papers all over the place. One chair was so stacked with stuff it wasn’t usable. I glanced around and noticed a copy of the Scranton Journal on the floor—the magazine for my alma mater, the University of Scranton, a small Jesuit university in Pennsylvania. I looked around for a diploma on the wall, but didn’t see anything. So I asked about the magazine.

“It turns out that we were both graduates, now living nearly 3,000 miles away in California. Talking about that really helped break the ice and took the edge off. We spent 30 minutes reminiscing about the school, the campus, the local hang-out bar that all the kids went to. Then we spent about 15 minutes talking about project issues.

“It was a very successful meeting. The bond we had established made it possible for me to glean more information from him and he seemed very open to hearing my perspectives on the project. We got to the heart of the matter in no time. My company also got the follow-on work, and the CIO was a loyal client for years to come.”

—Gary Celli

What’s your next opportunity to make it personal?


Read more stories about trust:


Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Most people see transparency as a good thing, and disclosure an obvious way to get there.  Often, we don’t distinguish between them.

But they’re not the same thing. And confusing them just lets bad behavior sneak back in through the back door.

What’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.


Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.


Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence. And a wise buyer will always look for the transparency that may, or may not, underlie the disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.


Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @

When Failure is an Option–and an Opportunity

“Park the car,” the officer said to my 17 year old son who was taking his driving test.  He had put the car in drive and was about to make a left turn out of the parking space as the officer instructed.  He’d gone all of about 2 feet.  But he did not look to the right, an offense that will require retesting.

I’d practiced with my son the day before.  He is a good driver.  Obeys the rules of the road religiously.  Always goes the speed limit.  Stops completely at stop signs and for pedestrians.  Signals before turning.  I was sure he would get his license on his first try.

No Need for Blame or Shame

Was he upset?  His answer was a clear “no.”  He wasn’t embarrassed either.  “It just is,” he said.

What he didn’t do:

  • Make excuses or try to justify what happened
  • Blame the officer, me, my wife or even himself
  • Get angry

What he did do:

  • Respected the officer for calling him on the mistake
  • Resolved to pay more attention
  • Accepted the fact that he would have to retake the test and looked on the bright side — he would get to drive more for additional practice

Lessons Learned From a Failed Driving Test

We broadened our discussion about what could be learned from his experience:

  • Rules for driving are important.

He came up with that one.  If we did not follow those rules, the roads would be chaos and dangerous.  To me, that sounds a lot like reliability, a Trust Equation component.  Knowing that people stop for red lights and stop signs creates some degree of reliability.

  • Civilized society requires rules.

He mentioned that we need rules to survive as a society, so we know what is expected of us and what to expect.  Again, reliability on a more global, rather than individual scale.  Interestingly, I think he picked that up in 8th grade where the students created their own rules.

  • Failing the test was the right consequence of the mistake he made.

I was impressed by the matter-of-fact way he accepted the situation.  He realized he’d made a mistake and that he should not blame others for it.   That shows a low self-orientation, another Trust Equation component.

Intimacy Trumps Failure

After the officer terminated my son’s driving test less than a minute after it started, he told my son that he had made the same mistake a couple of years before.  The officer turned left without looking right and almost hit someone in a wheel chair.   The officer exposed his own vulnerability and he connected with my son in that moment.  The truth is, that moment of intimacy made my son’s respect and admiration for the officer grow a little and I think my son grew a little too.

My son learned a lot about failure and success.  And about living.

Story Time: An Unexpected Way to Recover Lost Trust

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on an unexpected way to recover lost trust and appease an unhappy client: listening.

A New Anthology

Our upcoming book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness. In the coming months, we’ll share a selection of stories from the new book with you.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on listening. It vividly demonstrates the value of hearing someone out, resisting the temptation to problem-solve too quickly, and being willing to always do what’s in your client’s best interests—even if that means letting go of the work assignment.

From the Front Lines: Listening to Recover Trust

Catherine Gregory, Senior Principal at SRA International in its Touchstone Consulting Group in Washington, DC, tells a story of the business value of listening.

“I had a team of four working on a long-term project with an important client who especially valued seeing the same faces year after year. In the course of three months, the entire team turned over. I had to deliver the bad news as each team member departed.

“After several turnovers, my client vented to me his frustration. I listened, and then listened some more, as he expressed his concerns and aggravation. He concluded with, ‘I know you are doing all you can. I just had to get that out.’ He was still unhappy and we were able to move forward together.

“Once things were stable with the team, I brought up the possibility of phasing out our support and letting him phase in a contractor who he felt would be more reliable. He didn’t want anyone else; he wanted our team.

“This experience proved to me without a doubt that listening is a critical business skill, and a way to recover trust in the face of challenging circumstances.”

—Catherine Gregory (Senior Principal, SRA International, Touchstone Consulting Group, Washington, DC)

Who in your life is waiting for you to give them a good listening to?

Gallup on Banking: Squandering Trust for 32 Years

When a child is untrustworthy, parenting is needed. When an adult is untrustworthy, counseling can help. When a company is untrustworthy, markets exact discipline.

But what if an entire industry has lost trust? What kind of a problem is that? And how can it be solved?

The Banking Industry

A recent Gallup survey makes the banking industry a timely poster child for low trust.  Banking is not the only low-trust industry these days; pharma could give it a good run, for example (and both are more trusted than Congress). But the trust issues raised by the poll are not just industry-specific.

First, the facts. In Rebuilding Trust in Banks, Gallup presents 32 years of survey data. That’s quite a lot of years.

In 1979, 60% of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in banks. By 2011 that number was down to 23% (actually up from 18% in 2010).

That is a 70% decline from peak (60) to trough (18).  Put another way–the industry squandered 70% of its trust. That’s quite a lot of squander.

The obvious two questions are: How does that happen? And what can be done about it?

How Can an Entire Industry Squander Trust?

I haven’t seen a single answer, partly because there is no One Answer. But I also haven’t seen a good list. So let’s break it down.

1. It’s tempting to blame a general decline in trust across all business. But there are three problems with this view:

a. Trust in business actually seems to be volatile, not steadily dropping;

b. The statistics usually conflate two issues. Saying “trust in business has dropped” fails to distinguish a decline in customers’ propensity to trust from a decline in banks’ trustworthiness;

c. There are notable exceptions. Nurses and pharmacists have topped the “most trusted professions” surveys for years–how do they beat the odds? (Particularly pharmacists–since pharmaceuticals as an industry ranks so low).

2. A decline in the inclination of people to trust. Dr. Eric Uslaner suggests that people’s propensity to trust in government is cyclical (it varies with the economy), but that trust in people has steadily declined since the 1970s.

3. A decline in general trustworthiness of banks. It’s not easy to isolate banking trustworthiness from customers’ propensity to trust–definitions are difficult. Two very different but powerful approaches to corporate trustworthiness measurement can be found in Trust Across America and in Laura Rittenhouse’s Rittenhouse Rankings of corporate candor.

4. An anti-trust ideology of business. We have inculcated a couple of generations of businesspeople with beliefs that drive down both propensity to trust and corporate trustworthiness.

Here are five ideologies in vogue since the 1970s:

a. Economists’ celebration of the virtues of markets–think Milton Friedman;

b. Strategists’ celebration of competition–think Michael Porter;

c. Pop philosophers’ celebration of laissez-faire systems–think Ayn Rand;

d. Financial theorists’ celebration of shareholder value–think Michael Jensen;

e. Government officials who embraced all the above ideologies–think Alan Greenspan.

If you doubt the power of beliefs to change society over a generation, consider this passage from Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article describing a German banker who was [recently] completely snookered by lying US investment bankers.  Why was he taken? Lewis writes:

He mists up a bit when he tells stories about the Americans he did business with back then [in the early 80s]: in one story an American investment banker who had inadvertently shut him out of a deal hunts him down and hands him an envelope with 75 grand in it, because he hadn’t meant for the German bank to get stiffed.

“You have to understand,” he says emphatically, “this is where I get my view of Americans.”

In the past few years, he adds, that view has changed.

What does this add up to? It means:

  • Low trust in business is not pre-ordained—we reap what we sow;
  • Low trustworthiness drives low propensity to trust more than the other way around;
  • Beliefs drive behaviors;
  • Leaders’ belief systems exert big influence over trust in business.

What to Do?

If you’re with me on the diagnostic, there’s a simple prescription:

Leaders, Straighten Up and Think Right.

In other words: start with leaders and thoughts.

Here’s what Gallup has to say about how to build trust:

The effort to rebuild trust must begin with bank leadership, then flow through a bank’s employees to customers, the public, lawmakers, and regulators. Every interaction matters. If bank leaders and employees do not demonstrate that they trust their own bank, other stakeholders never will.

Because the process of rebuilding trust with the public starts with the bank, Gallup recommends that bank leaders make rebuilding employees’ trust in banks their No. 1 priority.

Yes, there’s more. Uslaner has a lot to say about economic inequality and education, and it’s very valuable. But you yourself—yes, you, the reader—may not have a lot of direct control over inequality.  You do, however, control your own thoughts, and you probably influence and lead other people.

Start thinking trust-creation. When it comes to trust, thoughts have power.