Buddhist Capitalism vs Competitive Selling: the Power of Trust and Collaboration

When you think of capitalism, you probably think of competition as a central, driving force. We have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We view competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs; in today’s parlance, competition is what yields creative disruption.  Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”

At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes.

And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.

The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.

Business Competition in the Real World

In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.

If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.

Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.

The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)

Buddhist Capitalism

By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.

You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.

If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.

It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.

It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s no less true for being musically suggestive.

Buddhist Selling

What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.

Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.

Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.

Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers (that’s not a joke – go read Mike Porter’s Five Forces model of competitive strategy). Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.

But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.

The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.


This post was originally published in RainToday.com 

Why Your Clients Don’t Trust You – and How to Fix It

Do your customers trust you? Be honest, now, this is not an in-house survey. Do they believe what you say? Will they cut you a break if you goof up?  Are they happy to share information with you? Do they go out of their way to refer you?

Can you honestly answer ‘yes,’ to yourself, in the dead of night, to those questions?

If you’re trying to sell your services, you already know the value of being trusted. Being trusted increases value, cuts time, lowers costs, and increases profitability—both for us and for our clients.

So, we try hard to be trustworthy: to be seen as credible, reliable, honest, ethical, other-oriented, empathetic, competent, experienced, and so forth.

But in our haste to be trustworthy, we often forget one critical variable: people don’t trust those who never take a risk. If all we do is be trustworthy and never do any trusting ourselves, eventually we will be considered un-trustworthy.

To be fully trusted, we need to do a little trusting ourselves.

Trusting and Being Trusted

We often talk casually about “trust” as if it were a single, unitary phenomenon—like the temperature or a poll. “Trust in banking is down,” we might read.

But that begs a question. Does it mean banks have become less trustworthy? Or does it mean bank customers or shareholders have become less trusting of banks? Or does it mean both?

To speak meaningfully of trust, we have to declare whether we are talking about trustors or about trustees. The trustor is the party doing the trusting—the one taking the risk. These are our clients, for the most part.

The trustee is the party being trusted—the beneficiary of the decision to trust. This is us, for the most part.

The trust equation is a valuable tool for describing trust:

But where is risk to be found? How can we use the trust equation to describe trusting and not just being trusted? How can we trust, as well as seek to be trusted?

Trust and Risk

Notwithstanding Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “trust but verify,” the essence of trust is risk. If you submit a risk to verification, you may quantify the risk, but what’s left is no longer properly called “trust.” Without risk there is no trust.

In the trust equation, risk appears largely in the Intimacy variable. Many professionals have a hard time expressing empathy, for example, because they feel it could make them appear “soft,” unprofessional, or invasive.

Of course, it’s that kind of risk that drives trust. We are wired to exchange reciprocal pleasantries with each other. It’s called etiquette, and it is the socially acceptable path to trust. Consider the following:

“Oh, so you went to Ohio State. What a football team; I have a cousin who went there.”

“Is it just me, or is this speaker kind of dull? I didn’t get much sleep last night, so this is pushing my luck.”

“Do you know whether that was a social media reference he just made? Sometimes I feel a little out of the picture.”

If we take these small steps, our clients usually reciprocate. Our intimacy levels move up a notch, and the trust equation gains a few points.

If we don’t take these small steps, the relationship stays in place: pleasant and respectful, but like a stagnant pool when it comes to trust.

Non-Intimacy Steps for Trusting

The intimacy part of the trust equation is the most obvious source of risk-taking, but it is not the only one. Here are some ways to take constructive risks in other parts of the trust equation.

  1. Be open about what you don’t know. You may think it’s risky to admit ignorance. In fact, it increases your credibility if you’re the one putting it forward. Who will doubt you when you say you don’t know?
  2. Make a stretch commitment. Most of the time, you’re better off doing exactly what you said you’ll do and making sure you can do what you commit to. But sometimes you have to put your neck out and deliver something fast, new, or differently.To never take such a risk is to say you value your pristine track record over service to your client, and that may be a bad bet. Don’t be afraid to occasionally dare for more—even at the risk of failing.
  3. Have a point of view. If you’re asked for your opinion in a meeting, don’t always say, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Clients often value interaction more than perfection. If they wanted only right answers, they would have hired a database.
  4. Try on their shoes. You don’t know what it’s like to be your client. Nor should you pretend to know. But there are times when, with the proper request for permission, you get credit for imagining things.”I have no idea how the ABC group thinks about this,” you might say, “but I can imagine—if I were you, Bill, I’d feel very upset by this. You’ve lost a degree of freedom in this situation.”

While trust always requires a trustor and a trustee, it is not static. The players have to trade places every once in a while. We don’t trust people who never trust us.

So, if we want others to trust us, we have to trust them. Go find ways to trust your client; you will be delighted by the results.


This post originally appeared on RainToday.com


Caution: Sales Experts May be Hazardous to Your Sales

Neil Rackham’s classic SPIN Selling book is famous for many reasons – the depth of research, his clarity of thinking, the deeply commonsensical conclusions he draws. It’s a great book, and deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten over the years.

Yet I’ve always been amused and delighted by a small item he mentions almost in passing: the fact that certain techniques developed for small-item selling – notably closing – actually backfire when applied to larger, more complex sales. In other words, “sales expertise” of a certain kind may actually be hazardous to your sales health.

That may not seem like much of an insight, over 25 years later. Since the book’s publication in 1988, we have seen major growth in thinking about B2B sales, as well as the transformative impact of the Internet on the sales function. Nowadays no one would be caught dead trying an “assumptive close” in a modern B2B sales interaction.

Now, that may seem obvious too, to most everyone. Yet does that mean all sales expertise these days works, more or less? I think not. In fact, there still remains a glaring assumption at the heart of almost all sales systems which, if not properly understood, will actually decrease your sales effectiveness, just as much as improper closing techniques.

It is the assumption that the point of selling is to get the sale.

What is the Point of Selling?

You may think the “point of selling” is obvious. What else could the point of selling be, except to get the sale? And I’m not talking about the difference between single transactions and repeat business, either. I’m talking about the very purpose, the underlying goal, aim, objective, of the salesperson, sales process, and sales function. What else could the purpose be, except to get the sale?

The alternative purpose of selling, I suggest, is – to help the customer.  That is not a trivial distinction – it’s meaningful. It’s also a powerful distinction, and one that’s not easy to achieve. But if you do achieve it, you’ll do better on many dimensions – including sales.  

To see why this is a meaningful and powerful distinction, let’s first explore what it would mean to have a different purpose for sales – a purpose other than to get the sale.

Design Implications of Helping the Customer as a Goal

Suppose your primary purpose was to help a customer. What exactly would you do differently?

You’d be less concerned about whether you won or lost the sale. You’d spend a little more time on situations where you thought you could help – and a little less time where you thought you couldn’t. You’d take more time with leads to help them determine the best way for them to find and receive help; and you would often refer them out to other providers where you thought they might get better help.

You’d seek out slightly different leads and targets than if you focused solely on where you thought you could sell. You’d view your competitors differently – as alternative offerings to help your customers get what they need. You’d give up time and expertise on occasion, if you felt it would help your customers advance a key cause.  Conversely, you might be quicker to embrace value-billing in cases where you clearly bring value to the table.

You’d talk less about your own capabilities, and more about what would be good for your customer. You’d be naturally curious about what your customer needed, and what would make their business better. Your curiosity would extend outside and beyond your own company’s service offering, to include those of other firms.

If your organization similarly supported a goal of helping the customer, then the metrics you operate under would be changed as well. Instead of an emphasis on quarterly sales results, progress against closing, and forecasted probabilized backlog rates, you’d see consumer-focused metrics which spoke to customer performance and result of that performance. Noticeably absent would be much of the fine-toothed combing by lawyers enumerating the thou-shalt-nots of the relationship.

Operationalizing a Customer-Helping Goal

Looking at the above list, you’re probably having three thoughts:

  1. “Not a bad list, actually, we could do with a bit more focus like that,”
  2. “Yes, but you have to make money,” and
  3. “Yes, but you can’t be letting customers just take advantage of you.”

Note that thoughts two and three have an implicit assumption: the assumption that if you don’t focus on getting the sale, then you probably won’t get the sale. And that’s where the miracle happens: because precisely the opposite is true.

People don’t like to be told what to do. People don’t like to feel controlled. People respond positively to a sense that they are being listened to, and to people whom they feel have their best interests at heart. We respond positively to generosity, and negatively to greed. We tend to return favors, and to avoid those who have burned us.

In short, we reciprocate. The lessons of game theory, marriage therapy, and political organization all point in one direction – favors done, attention paid, and interest shown all beget the same in return. This simple truth is deeply embedded in our simplest human interactions (think handshakes, smiles) and our most complex ones as well (cultural affinities, political alliances).

And the main result of reciprocation is – more reciprocation. If you listen to me, I will listen to you. If you treat me well, I will keep coming back. If I buy from you and you respond well, I’m likely to keep buying from you.

Unless, that is – the seller gets selfish. All bets are off to the extent we perceive the seller as completely self-oriented, selfish, manipulative, driven only by his own needs. If we as buyers feel objectified, treated solely as walking wallets by the seller, then we reciprocate – we coldly calculate the value of the seller to us, and become willing to walk, in part because we also feel insulted by such behavior.

The Paradox at the Heart of Great Selling

The best sales come from interactions where the sale is not the goal, but a byproduct. Where the sale is a natural outcome of an attitude of other-focus, genuine concern, and focus on the other. Where the attitude is long-term, not transactional, and built on an assumption of win-win, rather than of scarcity.

There’s a paradox here. The best selling comes when you stop trying to sell, when you simply focus on doing right by the customer.  This doesn’t mean you turn into a non-profit charity. There is still a role for profitability metrics, CRM systems and funnel statistics.  But they must become subordinated to the broader goal – helping your customer.

Dial those metrics back 90%, lengthen their timeframe, and don’t think of them while interacting with customers. I know, you’re worried there are customers who’ll take advantage of you, those who are just looking for a free ride? Yes, though not nearly as many as you think. And those who act that way are the ones you gift to your competitors anyway.

If you help your customers, they’ll help you. That’s a rule that doesn’t need your thumb on the scale to work. Don’t force it. Make customer help your goal.


An earlier version of this post was published at RainToday.com.





New Sales Book: Willing to Buy

One of the (mixed) blessings of being a published author is that other aspiring authors send you manuscripts to review (with the hope I’ll promote them). I try to respond when possible, but even then I never promise to recommend a book without first reading it; and most of the time, I don’t.


But then every once in a while a little gem comes along. Such is Willing to Buy: A Questioning Framework for Effective Closing, by Dan Schultheis and Phil Perkins. The authors don’t have a big publisher behind them, nor a sophisticated social media campaign.  What they do have going for them is a very good little book that gets a few important things very right.

I was so pleased to have been given the chance to see this book in its infancy that I agreed to write the forward to it. And since the book has just been published, I’d like to share that forward with you. Do yourself (and the authors) a favor: check it out.


In Willing to Buy, Dan Schultheis and Phil Perkins have staked out a small but important piece of territory in the sales kingdom, and have brought to bear a powerful searchlight. The book illuminates a lot more than just the nominal area of focus.

The area this book focuses on is the qualification and disqualification of prospects. While the authors touch on other parts of sales – presentations, lead generation, pricing – the focus is on one key aspect, namely: if you can better identify the ‘dry holes,’ you’ll be able to spend more time and effort on sales that are likely to produce results.

But if that’s all this book said, it would be indistinguishable from a hundred other arguments in favor of sales efficiency – arguments that focus on discipline, metrics, systems and processes, and screening algorithms. However, this book goes two steps further.

The first Step Further is a carefully defined, holistic framework for thinking about the issue.  The framework is built around the idea of a customer’s Willingness to Buy. It has Four Pillars, each of them eminently commonsensical and leading to rich questions.

In short, it makes a great deal of sense, and leads to sensible conversations. It has muscle and brain, not just analytical rigor.

The book is largely about exploring and explaining those Four Pillars.  But I want to focus on the Second Step Further. Because this book isn’t your typical one-sided, self-aggrandizing, greed-feeding sales book.  This book comes at things from a far better perspective – the perspective that sales is a joint activity.

I’ve always believed in my own work on integrating sales and trust that the best sales are those which are first and foremost of benefit to the customer, and only then also of benefit to the seller. Most sales books (and most salespeople) approach sales from the zero-sum point of view, the competitive strategy point of view, in which one plus one always equals something very close to two, and selling is about transferring funds from the wallet of the buyer to the wallet of the seller. It is precisely this attitude which has led to such a bad reputation for the field of sales.

Instead, Schultheis and Perkins recognize throughout the book that the interests of buyer and seller are far more intertwined than in opposition; a great sale is one that benefits both parties. Further, the authors are quite right that an educated buyer is going to make a better decision – and a better decision is in everyone’s best interest.

Almost in passing, Schultheis makes a great point: sellers almost always have more experience selling than buyers have experience in buying.  A “zero-sum” seller views this as an opportunity to do end-runs around a hapless buyer.  But a seller using the Willingness to Buy approach will view this as an opportunity to add value to the buyer.

The payoff of the Willing to Buy approach is not that the number of dry holes is pared, or that the investment in lost sales is reduced. Instead, the payoff is that buyers are given the wherewithal to make intelligent buying decisions. In many of those cases, using this process helps the buyer sharpen the internal case for purchase – and it follows, with great predictability, that buyers will disproportionally give the sale to the seller who helped sharpen the case.

But that’s not all. Sometimes the clarification of the buyers Willingness to Buy results in the realization that the buyer is, in fact, not ready to buy, for any of dozens of reasons. Contrary to popular sales belief, this is not a bad thing – this is a thing to be proud of and even grateful for.

You might ask, how can losing a sale be a good thing? Well, there is the narrow efficiency argument; the sooner you figure out a non-sale the sooner you can stop investing in it.  But the more important reason is by helping a buyer to get to that position, you have created trust.

You have helped a buyer articulate a business case for something: it may or may not be ready for prime time, but that means the buyer will either make a better case in the future, and/or has avoided making a fool of him- or herself now.  It means the buyer and seller have developed a relationship, instead of the all-too-frequent dropping off the radar screen that happens with most sales leads. Most CRM systems, if they’re honestly kept, will have more “died” entries than “lost” entries, and nearly all the “died” entries represent residual guilt on the part of the buyer for not having closed the loop, and resentment on the part of the seller that they had been “left hanging.”

By honestly having discussions with the buyer about whether or not this is a good buy, a seller positions him or herself for the future – not only with this buyer, but with any other buyer in that company to whom Buyer 1 might speak; or any buyer outside the company to whom Buyer 1 might refer you.

There are not a great deal of salespeople who develop a reputation as being trusted advisors – but for those who do, this is a great way to get there.  Help your customers make better decisions, for their sake.  If you do so, you will get more than your share of the sales – but they will come about as a byproduct, a collateral benefit, and not as a goal.

By helping buyers understand their own Willingness to Buy, you first help them, which in turn helps you. The seller is the experienced party in the buy-sell relationship; to borrow an air travel metaphor, it is incumbent on us to give the oxygen mask first to the buyer, before using it ourselves. That way everyone has a safer flight.

How To Become A Trusted Advisor: 5 Surprisingly Common Myths About Trust

A big Trust Matters welcome to Ago Cluytens, whose guest blogpost follows. Ago is not only a sales expert, but also a past buyer of B2B and consultative services–he has worked both sides of the sales street. Ago is also Practice Director EMEA for RainGroup, a highly respected sales training, consulting and research organization.

Ago’s comments are based in part on an interview he and I recently conducted; a link to the interview itself is embedded in the blogpost.


If you are reading this blog, there is little doubt that you’re bought into the idea that trust is a cornerstone foundation of doing business today.

You probably already know how to build trust with prospects, clients, colleagues and peers. How to position yourself as a trusted advisor. You understand the basic dynamics of how trust is acquired, expanded and sustained over time. And you probably have a good idea of how, and why, trust is lost.

Trouble is, what you think you know may be wrong.

In a recent Hangout with Charlie, we covered five surprisingly common myths about trust. Five axioms that are universally accepted, almost without question. Five so-called truths that sound logical and reasonable – but are, unfortunately, plain wrong.



#1. Trust takes a long time to build

There are those who believe that trust takes a long time to build. They talk about it being a journey, often one of many weeks and months, before trust is there. And once it is earned, it can be lost in the blink of an eye (see next myth).

The truth is, we often rely on a small set of indicators to decide whether we trust someone or not – almost instantaneously. We look at their professional credentials. Their network and the people they associate with. The firm they represent. Their educational background and experience.

And based on those factors, especially in business, we make a decision to trust someone very quickly. It doesn’t take that long – in fact, if it did, almost no business would be done in the world today.

#2. Trust is lost in the blink of an eye

Another stubborn myth is that trust is hard to gain, but easy to lose. In our conversation, Charlie raised an important point – once we trust someone, really trust them, it’s often very hard to stop trusting them.

Think about it like this: imagine you’ve had a positive, enriching and mutually rewarding working relationship with someone for many years. For whatever reason, something goes wrong. Would you stop trusting them instantly? Or would you give them “the benefit of the doubt”, see how they handled the situation and then decide whether or not to continue trusting them in the future ?

My guess is it would be the latter – relax. Once trust is gained, it’s not all that easy to lose.

#3. Trust is about “the soft stuff”

As a former corporate manager and executive, I’ve been in many situations where I’ve had to make an important buying decision based on relatively little input. Often, no more than some online research and a couple of meetings with potential vendors.

Yet, I (and others like me) have made decisions to allocate significant budgets, resources and corporate investments based on a single question: do I trust this person?

In truth, when you are selling something non-tangible like professional, financial or technology services, putting trust in the bank is very much like putting cash in the bank – a very wise investment with tangible, measurable benefits and returns.

#4. Trust has to be earned – not given

We often look to others to earn our trust – as if it is something that is exclusively ours to decide whether we give it or not. The fact is, we often have to give trust first in order to receive it later.

There is something extraordinary about how our own actions impact the behaviors and actions of others. When we decide to trust someone, we very subtly invite them to do the same – and often with the desired effect.

#5. Trust is about reducing risk

Trust and risk are often used in the same sentence, as if they are two sides of the same coin. Where there is some truth to that (often, trust is lost when a risk gone wrong is handled poorly), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The notion of risk is part and parcel of doing business, and trust is not merely a risk reduction mechanism. In many cases, trust is built or enhanced through risk. We start trusting someone more once we’ve seen how to handle a tricky situation. We decide to trust them based on how they have overcome an obstacle or particular challenge in the past (also called “references” or “case studies”).

Trust is not solely about reducing risk – it’s about a complex interplay between both when they interact, grow and – when things go very wrong – destroy each other.

In this post have taken a deeper look at five surprisingly common myths about trust. But I’ve also left out one important truth: the most important factor in building trust is you.

You are what makes others decide to trust you. Your behavior. Your actions. Your mistakes and how you handle them. Meaning that, in the end, whether or not you become a trusted advisor is very much down to you.

How Not to Write a Rejection Letter

This post was originally published on The Get Real Project.
I got a rejection letter recently from a committee for one of those mega-conferences, letting me know my speaker proposal had not been accepted. The letter was unbelievably polite. And therefore so very painful to read. Here’s what they wrote, and what I wish they had written instead.

Version 1: The letter I received

(The text in italics is what I was thinking as I read it.)

Dear Andrea:Thank you for submitting a presentation proposal for the XYZ Annual Conference being held <date> in City, State. (Uh oh. Not good.)Each proposal was given careful and deliberate consideration.(In other words, mine wasn’t selected.) We strive to offer a balanced program of educational sessions at the conference and select the proposals that best fit the overall programming framework of the conference. (So mine didn’t stand out, or give you what you wanted.) Please understand that we receive many proposals with several on the same topic. (I know what’s coming. Please just say it.) Exceptional proposals are turned away each year for the simple reason that we have limited speaking slots.(Please, please just say it.) Your proposal was not selected this year. (FINALLY.) However, your interest in offering your skills, background and knowledge is greatly appreciated. (Yeah, you say that to everyone.)Once again, thank you for your submission. (Sigh.)

They meant well; I know they did. This is a really well-run conference with hundreds of speakers and probably thousands of proposals. The problem as I see it: they fell prey to the two big traps that so many of us do (myself included) when we have to deliver bad news:

(1) Take way too long to say what needs to be said, and

(2) Say it overly politely, and formally, when a little humanity would do a world of good.

Version 2: The letter I wish I had received

(The text in italics is what I would be thinking as I read it.)

Dear Andrea:

I wish I had better news. (Uh oh. Not good.) I’m sorry to say your proposal for ABC Topic was not selected this year for the XYZ Annual Conference being held June ##-##, 2014 in City, State. (Well, bummer.)

I know proposal submissions take time and I realize you may be disappointed. (They do … and I am!) At the risk of sounding formulaic, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that each proposal was given careful and deliberate consideration. (I hope so!) We work hard to design a balanced program of educational sessions at the conference and choose the proposals that best fit the overall programming framework of the conference. (That makes sense.) We receive between #### and #### proposals each year, often with several on the same topic. (I bet choosing is a really tough job.) As a result, exceptional proposals are turned away each year for one simple reason: limited speaking slots. (I get it.)

Although your proposal was not selected this year, rest assured your interest in offering your skills, background and knowledge is greatly appreciated and I appreciate your interest in making our conference a success. (Thank you!) I hope you’ll consider us again next year. (I think I will!)

Once again, thank you. (You’re welcome.)

There’s a lot of the same text in Version 2.

And a world of difference.

Crime, Fear and Trust

Most casual readers of the general press know three things: crime is up, public safety is down, and trust is declining.

The problem is: the first two are flat out wrong, and together they cast doubt on the third.

Crime and Fear

(The following data are compiled from the Atlantic, March 2015, Be Not Afraid).

Fear: In the US, Gallup annually asks if crime is up or down from the previous year. Every year, and usually by large amounts (73% vs 24% last year) the public says crime has risen.

Fact: Violent crime has declined by 70% since the early 1990s. The homicide rate has been cut in half, and three years ago hit the lowest level since 1963. Rape and sexual assault rates declined 60% from 1995 to 2010.

Fear: 58% of the public fears another US terrorist attack, down not much from one month after 9-11, when the number was 71%. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the world “more dangerous than it has ever been,” and that was two years ago and before ISIS.

Fact: Despite the horrific stories of ISIS, you’re four times more likely to drown in your bathtub than from a terrorist attack. Armed conflicts in the world are down 40% since the end of the Cold War.

And so on.

The point? Fear of crime and of danger are not necessarily linked to actual rates of crime and danger. In fact, myth is often negatively correlated with reality.

I’m fond of the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

But as ee cummings said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes paranoia is just irrational.

Trust and Statistics

What’s this got to do with trust? Good question.

First of all, ask yourself what the headlines say: Is trust in business generally up? Or is it down?  You all know the ‘right’ answer.

But trust has a definitional problem that crime doesn’t. Determining whether crime is really up or down is simple: look at the crime rate.

When it comes to trust, however there are three conceivable measures:

  1. Trust, the verb – are people more, or less, inclined to offer their trust in principle?
  2. Trust, the adjective – is business more or less trustworthy?
  3. Trust, the noun – is the resultant state of people’s trust in business up, or down?
Verb x   adjective  noun
Propensity to trust of trustor x trustworthiness of trustee = Level of trust achieved

All too often, the business press is guilty of mass confusion. When you see precise statistics from sources like the high visibility Edelman Trust Barometer, saying ’Trust in XYZ industry is up (or down)’  – ask yourself just what that oh-so-precise percentage is referring to. Does it mean:

  • People are X% less inclined to trust a given industry or company?
  • Industries/companies have gotten X% less trustworthy?
  • The state of consumer-to-industry trust has undergone an X% decline?

Presumably it means the last – the state of trust has declined. But here we have a problem – because we can’t tell which driving factor drove the decline.

  • Do we have a problem of paranoid consumers?
  • Or do we have a problem of endemic industry untrustworthiness?

If consumer fear-driven low propensity to trust is the root issue, then the financial services industry has got a public relations problem on its hands, and they should hire Edelman.

But if industry misbehavior is the root issue, then we’ve got a social, regulatory and political problem – throwing PR solutions at it won’t help, and may hurt.

Parsing the Data

There do exist some data. Every year the General Social Survey asks some trust questions, which are clearly of the “verb” type, assessing people’s general propensity to trust strangers in principle.

Here there is a clear trend: across the world, and particularly in the US, there is a secular decline in the level of propensity to trust.  So we have part of the answer: paranoia is increasing.

The question is: is the paranoia justified? Has trustworthiness declined, or has it increased?

I only know of two data sources that speak to that, and only partially at that. One is Trust Across America’s FACTS database, which gathers a number of data-points and aggregates them into measures of corporate trustworthiness. And while the TAA data does an excellent job of facilitating cross-company comparisons over time, its five years of data isn’t yet enough to speak clearly to aggregate trends.

The other source is our own Trust Quotient, or TQ, which overtly measures trustworthiness at the personal, not corporate, level.  We have noticed, both anecdotally and statistically, a gradual rise in the average level of TQ over the past 7 years. However, the data is self-reported, and is not a controlled valid sample of a broader population; it may just be grade inflation, or it may be comparing apples and oranges.

The conclusion? Except for the propensity to trust, which is clearly down on average, most trust data is either very specific and qualified, or definitionally vague.

I confess to some irritation on this topic. Trust is a serious issue, with many people seriously studying it, and doing so carefully. There are many more, however, who feel qualified to spout generalities and truisms about trust with no definitional clarity. Simply put, there is a lot of non-sense out there.

Next time you read something about trust being up or down, be critical. Ask whether the ‘trust’ being measured is a verb, an adjective, or a noun.  Ask whether pessimism is justified by data, or whether paranoia is overwhelming reality. Ditto for trust on the upside: if a company tells you their trust levels are up, push for definitions.

Don’t just nod your head: be a discerning student of trust data.




Lost Wallets, Trust, and Honesty

I lost my wallet.

Somewhere between a golf driving range and a supermarket, in a 30-minute period, it went missing. I turned things upside down, retraced my paths, left notes with wanting-to-be-helpful staff.

I monitored accounts for three days; no bank charges, no credit card hits, so I held off canceling the cards, calling the DMV etc. I shudder at the thought of replacing it all.

At dinner on day three, the sheriff’s department calls; I meet the officer at a gas station. All the cards are there, as well as the original $140 in cash intact. He says, “Good thing you left your number at the driving range, that made it easy to confirm it was you.”

I say, “I know you can’t take a reward, but how about the guy who turned it in?” The cop says, “That’s between you and him; here’s his name and phone number.”

I meet the good samaritan the next day – let’s call him Ishmael. Why did Ishmael do it? He gave the Kantian reason; “If it was me, I’d hope someone would turn it in.” I offer him $100 reward; he demurs; I insist; he graciously accepts.

But my big question: why did he wait three days? Had it laid unfound for so long? Was it a struggle with his own conscience?  Enquiring minds wanted to know.

His answer: “I didn’t feel right turning it in to the proprietor at the driving range; I guess I just didn’t know if I could trust him. I meant to call the police, but I worked late the next day, and wasn’t sure who to call at the police. But my girlfriend, she cleans houses; one of her clients is a cop. She asked him who to contact, and he said, ‘call this number.’ So she gave it to me, and I called, and now you have your wallet. I’m glad.”

Whom Can You Trust?

Clearly, Ishmael turned out to be highly trustworthy. But let’s note a few other trust decisions along the way.

Ishmael trusted a cop – note he didn’t trust ’the cops,’ but he did trust one cop. He trusted his girlfriend’s due diligence to find out which one. I wonder how Ishmael would answer an Edelman Trust Barometer survey asking if he trusted the police?

Ishmael didn’t trust the driving range proprietor. I initially didn’t either, though I met a second driving range employee on day two whom I trusted more.

The police didn’t have to trust anyone in this case. Their role was limited to being trustworthy – or not. In this case, they were. One cop gave a correct phone number; the other responded. He checked out the information, made the phone calls, and most obviously the wallet didn’t ‘disappear’ while in his custody. I would add he was pleasant, and also expressed the Kantian view when I apologized for keeping him waiting a bit – “Hey, no worries, I know how worried I’d be if it was my wallet.”

What about the bank? I trusted the bank’s systems in two ways. First, I trusted that any use of my debit or credit cards or withdrawal from my checking account would show up quickly, and I’d find out about it online.

But second, I ‘trusted’ that the bank wouldn’t trust me very far – at the first hint of a suspicious charge, or at my first suggestion of it, I knew the bank would drop the iron curtain on all my accounts. (US laws limit the liability of individuals in such cases, so banks will pull the trigger quickly on a false positive). So, I could afford to wait a bit.

And, I had some sort of trust in Ishmael – without even knowing who he was, or even that he existed. The clue was the lack of activity in my accounts. I figured either the wallet was still in my possession, or it had been stripped of cash by an addict and dumped (or, by a Kantian addict who had then put the cashless wallet in the mail – hey it used to happen that way in the 70s with cabdriver theft in NY).

Or, there was some Ishmael out there. But what was he waiting for? I confess I didn’t have an answer to that.

Past Lost Wallets

There is a pattern here.  Actually, two patterns. One is that clearly I have an issue with losing things. I’ve lost my wallet once before, in Copenhagen.  I’ve also managed to leave my MacBook Air computer on the plane – not just once, but twice.  The first was at O’Hare; the second, in Charlotte.

So yes, clearly I’ve got an issue with carelessness. But there are other things to note here as well, even though this is all anecdotal.

In the first wallet case, it was returned within the hour by a taxi driver. This was calmly and confidently predicted, both by my client and by the hotel; it’s the norm in Denmark, not even worth commenting on, they said. But you know, I’ve heard many stories about the same even in New York.

And in the airline cases, it all came down to individuals, taking personal responsibility far outside the system.

How Can We Trust Institutions?

The quick answer is, institutional trust is by its nature shallow. I can trust Chase bank’s systems (or not), but if I need something truly out of the ordinary, I’d better find a real person. Trust of the type that returns wallets is an individual thing – or, as the case of Denmark points out, a cultural thing.

It is a kind of misnomer to use the word ‘trust’ in the sense of ‘I trust an institution.’ But that doesn’t mean institutions have no role in trust. They have a huge role. The role is to establish an environment within which people can behave in trusting and trustworthy manners.

That is non-trivial. In fact, it’s vital. An organization that fosters bureaucracy, suspicion, and conformity is not going to attract, and certainly not sustain, trust-operating people.  By contrast, an organization that celebrates trusting and being trusted among its people will greatly influence the amount of trust that is created.

And our job, as we go about our daily lives, is to be open about when other people might surprise us – and, hopefully, to do the Kantian thing ourselves when the opportunity presents.


When Others Abuse Your Trust

Has your trust ever been violated? Did someone, once upon a time, abuse your trust? Have you ever placed your trust in someone or something, only to discover – painfully – that your trust had been misplaced?

Yes, almost certainly, you’ve had experiences like that. And they are unsettling – to say the least. The bottom drops out of something. You feel betrayed. Having been fooled, you feel foolish. You’re left with a pain, a void, a bitterness – and a resolve to do something differently going forward.

But what?

It turns out there are two strategies for dealing with broken trust. And one of them is far worse than the other.

Broken Trust: the Dynamics

Let’s remember what’s going on when trust is broken.

Trust is an asynchronous bilateral relationship. That’s a fancy way of saying that trust consists of a trustor and a trustee. What defines the trustor is the willingness to be vulnerable by taking a risk. What defines the trustee is the response to that vulnerability and that risk.

If the trustee chooses to take advantage of the trustor’s vulnerability by seizing on the risk and turning it to his advantage, then trust is broken, or stalled. If the trustee not only does not take advantage, but also then responds in a similarly vulnerable way (i.e. adopting the role of trustor), then the trust relationship is established, or advanced.

Trust relationships are built by continuous iterations of this risk-taken, risk-respected reciprocal behavior. And trust is broken, or stalled, when one party fails to reciprocate.

Setting up the dynamics of broken trust this way is important, because it allows us to see two ways that trust fails.

  • One is that the trustee abuses the vulnerability of the trustor.
  • The other is that the trustor stops taking risks.

Those Untrustworthy %$#!’s

What do we call those who abuse our trust? Vile, conniving, two-timing hustlers. Lying, two-faced, deceiving charlatans. Con artists, heartbreakers, depraved and immoral cowards. Essentially, we characterize them as lacking in character or virtue.

The implicit problem statement becomes, “How to protect myself from The Untrustworthy?” And the implicit answer is a two-parter:

1. Identify the untrustworthy in advance; and to the extent that is infeasible,

2. Take fewer risks in general.

It’s one thing say, “Never trust Joe again to make the restaurant reservations.” But as humans, we generalize.

  • “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Ergo, don’t trust anyone to make reservations.  Or,
  • “Once burned, shame on you; twice burned, shame on me.” Ergo, don’t trust Joe to do anything.

If you’re a human being, that gets translated into things like, “Don’t trust emails from Nigeria offering inheritances,” or “Beware of strangers who give you candy,” or “Cross the street if you see black teens in hoodies approaching.”

If you’re a company, that translates into things like, “Show me your ID,” or “Sign this non-compete agreement before we hire you,” or “Click here to acknowledge you’ve read the Terms of Service agreement.”

What has happened here?

  • We’ve gone from identifying untrustworthy agents to a wholesale reduction in risk-taking.
  • To prevent bad things from happening, we’ve cut down on the possibility of good things happening.
  • While blaming others for being bad trustees, we cut back on our role as trustors.
  • In the name of increasing the probability of trust (by screening the untrustworthy), we guarantee the reduction of trust (by refusing to play the trustor role).

In fact, this all-too-human response is all-too-common. Ebola? Close the Mexican border. Significant other cheated on you? “I don’t know if I can ever trust again.” Somebody sued you? Demand an indemnification clause in all future supplier contracts.

At a national level, this is why the TSA is what it is: far better we distrust everyone than try to identify the untrustworthy. At a personal level, this is why Twitter and country music are full of ‘done me wrong’ themes – and why they are so popular.

Three-Step Strategy for Dealing with The Untrustworthy

Yes, Virginia, there really is evil in the world, and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. But it’s also true that we systematically over-estimate the level of danger, and over-react by taking fewer risks.  So here’s the three part solution.

1. Soberly Assess the Risk. So she broke up with you. Get. Over. It. So your pride was hurt; how much is that in dollars and cents? So a customer burned you; what will it cost to bring in the SWAT team to deal with a mosquito?

Pain is inevitable – suffering is optional. Tough cases make bad law. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If it didn’t break your bones, or break your bank account – then really, how much harm was done? And we almost always over-estimate the damage.

It takes thoughtful maturity to not over-react. But trust is a thoughtful, mature relationship; if that were not so, every Neanderthal would be doing it.

2. Name It and Claim It, Then Trust Again. Don’t boil in the juices of your own resentment – explain to the other party what it felt like, and offer them another shot. Remember, the fastest way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.

The highest customer satisfaction ratings come from customer dissatisfaction turned around. The winning strategies in game theory consist of giving people two chances, not one.

Trustworthiness is not solely a static quality, a matter of virtue alone. It is also situational, the result of interactions with a trustor. If you withdraw from the trustor side of the game, you guarantee lower levels of trustworthiness on the other side of the relationship.  (This alone explains much of the dysfunction in the financial services sector).

3. Be Proportional in Your Response. Of course there are bad apples, Bernie Madoffs, and chronic hustlers. But don’t stop dating because of one bad date. Don’t enact protectionist tariff policies to halt one abuse. Don’t put all your employees through lie detector tests because one stole from you.

The tendency to overreact is natural; but the ability to fine-tune our initial instincts is what makes us human. It doesn’t take much in the way of brains or moral courage to shut the barn door after the animals have escaped; it takes both to intelligently assess the situation, and to think it through.


It’s tempting to view this as just a personal issue, but it’s one of the major trust issues facing corporations. In most Fortune 100 companies, the implicit belief is that the only good risk is a dead risk.  When you hear “risk,” you immediately hear “risk mitigation” and “risk management.” Risk departments are given enormous veto power, and virtually no one challenges corporate lawyers when they pronounce why the company can’t do this or that.

This inability to see risk-taking as the critical, essential role in trust creation is a major reason we don’t trust companies. It belongs right up there with the selfish, zero-sum, Hobbesian, shareholder-value-driven model of the company.

If a company doesn’t trust you and me, then we all have very good reason to say, in return – why the hell should we trust you?

Brain Science: Reductio ad Absurdum

Neuroscience is the hot new kid on the science block. And not without reason; the ability to map the brain’s inner workings offers huge medical potential.

But along the way, neuroscientists – and their fans in business and society in general – frequently commit a basic error that wouldn’t pass muster in a philosophy 101 class. It’s called the error of reductionism, and its most recent incarnation is in the pages of the NYTimes.

Why Powerful People Lack Empathy

The article cites interesting research showing that powerful people lack empathy. The question is why? The authors (associate professors of psychology at McMaster and University of Toronto) say this:

Why does power leave people seemingly coldhearted? Some, like the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, have suggested that powerful people don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources; as powerful people, they already have plentiful access to those.
We suggest a different, albeit complementary, reason from cognitive neuroscience…when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others.  [emphasis added]

Note: they cite one answer to the question “why,” and then proceed to offer a different answer. Or, what they claim is a different answer.

The Error of Reductionism

Suppose I described a television series plot to you. You might ask me why a certain character acted a certain way. And I might answer in several ways, including reference to the character’s personality, or a parallel plot line, or the motivations of another character interacting with this one. All of those might be good explanations, or answers to your ‘why’ question.

But suppose I answered in terms of the changing phosphors on the television screen when you watched the episode in question. Suppose I “explained” the character’s action by enumerating the sequence of LEDs firing in the back of the TV set. (I’m sure I’m wrong on my TV technology, but you get my drift).

You wouldn’t for a moment accept that as an “explanation.” By reducing a phenomenon to some underlying set of physical phenomena (typically chemistry or physics), you succeed in an powerful act of translation – but not of explanation.

You don’t “explain” history by reciting events. You don’t “explain” a French movie by translating it into English. You don’t “explain” genetics by mapping the human genome. And you don’t “explain” why powerful people are cold by pointing to parts of the brain. Such mechanical knowledge is critical to medical intervention, to be sure – but the broader world isn’t asking a medical question, it’s asking a human one.

Reductionism in Business and Society

When the likes of the New York Times and Harvard Business Review go all gaga over our increasing ability to “understand” or “explain” complex phenomena – and are committing the reductionist fallacy – well, Houston we have a problem. And it’s deeper than just scientists being un-educated in the liberal arts.

There is a strong inclination toward the reductionist fallacy in business in general. The wish to break things down, deconstruct, compartmentalize, and quantify is deeply embedded in management theory. Delegate, establish metrics, and manage by the numbers.

This is fine when we’re dealing with supply chains. It reaches absurd levels when we try to “manage” complex human behaviors, social interactions, leadership, corporate culture and the like. The reductionist tendency closely correlates with behavioralism; in training, we see it in the focus on skills to the exclusion of beliefs and mindsets.

We’ve seen a massive failure of the reductionist tendency in the world of education. The No Child Left Behind movement is, more than anything else, about teaching to tests; the mastery of thousands of specific components, in the mistaken belief that if you map enough details, the whole will emerge from the sum of the parts.

It’s not true. Sometimes you lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the soul is not to be found in the electron. Sometimes the explanation is not to be found by reciting the brain chemistry at play. We require something more to qualify as an answer to the question “why.”