Intimacy: If You Can’t Say the I-Word, You Have the I-Problem

Many of you know about the Trust Equation – (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation. Trust research has shown that of the four factors, the one most associated with high trust scores is – Intimacy.

Recently I’ve spoken with two organizations – one in financial services, the other in professional services – that are uncomfortable using the word “intimacy” in a business context. They’d prefer something a little more, you know – business-ey.

Intimacy, they feel, is, you know, that other stuff…not appropriate…uncomfortable…you know…

The Intimacy Chicken and Egg Problem

This is not new. People and firms from those industries in particular tend to score high on Credibility and Reliability, with their lowest scores often in Intimacy. Still, I hadn’t put left and right together until recently. Here it is:

The ones who score low on intimacy are the ones who do not like using the term “intimacy.”

Which on the one hand is perfectly reasonable: after all, discussion of intimacy feels kind of intimate.

But on the other hand, it raises this question:

If you can’t talk about the I-word ­– how are you ever going to get better at it?

Intimacy: Not Just a Girlie-Man Thing

Intimacy, as defined in the trust equation, is related to empathy. The client of someone with great intimacy skills will feel secure, understood, and comfortable sharing sensitive information with the advisor.

By contrast, a professional with poor intimacy skills is not likely to get invited to the meeting in the first place – rendering the rest moot.

Way back in 1993, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema wrote in Harvard Business Review about Customer Intimacy. Since then, a great many companies talk about “customer intimacy” as a very viable business strategy. Companies from such wussy industries as defense contracting and oil have focused on this concept.

Which raises the question: if the he-men who sell to the Marines and who work in the Awl Patch can talk about “intimacy” – then why can’t lawyers, accountants and Wall Streeters?

Fear of Intimacy

There’s no need to get all Freudian about this. I think the biggest reason for our fear of intimacy in the business world is related to our increasingly dysfunctional idea of shareholder capitalism. The common thread? It’s all not personal.

We have become enamored of Schumpeterian creative destruction – but really don’t care to look at the nuts and bolts of structural unemployment.  That’s a little too, you know, personal.

What’s the purpose of a company? You know, to make money. And what are people to the company? Resources. Human resources. Better yet, human capital. That’s what we’ve come to believe: the word “human” is the adjective, “capital” the noun it modifies. It’s not, you know, personal.

Why is intimacy a no-no for so many in business, while “customer intimacy” gets accepted? Because it’s not so personal, that’s why. “Customers” are collective abstractions, not unlike Mitt Romney’s curious assertion that corporations are people. We talk about “the” customer – but never about a customer.

When we can turn people into abstractions, treat them as categories suitable to be measured and analyzed, then we don’t have to treat them as personal. They can be “customers,” or “human resources,” or “strategic partners” – just not as individuals. Our ideology has let us conveniently dehumanize business.


The inability to deal with intimacy in business is tied to the inability to see business as personal. It’s the same cloth. The day we can look at a customer or an employee and see a human being – that’s the day we can begin to deal with intimacy in business.

Until then, if you continue seeing “intimacy” as socially inappropriate, you are willfully relegating yourself to less trustworthy status.

14 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    I found your post quite interesting. 
    With your permission, I’ll posit a few points.  Intimacy is all about opening oneself up and
    thus creating vulnerability.  We all talk
    about the importance of knowing the customer. 
    We are asking the customer to open themselves up to us.  Corporations are using social networking and
    enhanced technological solutions to “know the customer” better, yet are
    increasingly hesitant to let the customer “know” them.  The customer is being asked to increase their
    vulnerability and intimacy without any reciprocal action on the part of the
    seller.  When we sell professional or
    financial services often the same form of interaction occurs.  We want to know our customer’s problem, but
    provide credentials and references in return. 
    In neither of these situations has trust been created.  It is only when we offer an equal degree of
    openness with our client that we can truly create intimacy and trust. Free
    market proponents often conveniently forget that “free markets” work both
    ways.  If you want to know your customer,
    you must be open to them knowing you.

    • Andrea P. Howe
      Andrea P. Howe says:

      Rich, your comment reminds me of a belief I have (and have seen play out hundreds of times): that we tend to get what we give. As you point out, we ask customers to be vulnerable all the time (simply being a customer is a vulnerable position to be in), and yet don’t give them much vulnerability of our own — and heaven forbid we actually lead the way and take the first risk. Reciprocity works with intimacy the same way it works with influence. Thanks for articulating that so clearly and thoughtfully.

  2. Turner Harriot
    Turner Harriot says:

    Charles you are bang on! I’ll also take your equation a step
    further and add honesty. I personally can’t be effective with clients unless I
    have their absolute trust. To earn that trust I have to be respectfully and
    brutally honest with them and they have to be honest with me.
    Intimacy separates
    those that care from those that sell.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Turner Harriot

  3. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:

    Thanks all. 

    Rich, I think you’re right to emphasize how “intimacy” is a 2-way street, and it’s not just silly, but arrogant, to assume it can only flow one way.  That’s what I hear Andrea and Turner picking up on too, and it’s a great insight. 

  4. Peter Vajda
    Peter Vajda says:

    “…But on the other hand, it raises this question: If you can’t talk about the I-word ­– how are you ever going to get better at it?” (Charlie)

    The question beneath the question I feel it raises is “When it comes to Intimacy, what are you afraid of? ” I would ask it and stay quiet for as long as it takes for the other to respond. And,”nothing” is not an acdeptable response. The response opens the dialogue and the curiosity as to where it will lead.

  5. John
    John says:

    I think you may have something where you point out that we have moved to a stockholder shareholder mentality v. stakeholder and the idea that it’s not personal. When I hear people say it’s not personal I say “Bull Hockey”. If it’s not personal, if you don’t care, if it’s not important why are you doing it?

    I get the idea that we can’t take everything personally. But if it’s not personal, if it is all a transaction, why bother.

    My humble opinion is that if we could bring a little more of the personal back into our civic dialogue we might find more common ground than we suspect.

  6. PO
    PO says:

    Love your insights Charlie, but finding a root cause in  modern capitalism and pulling in Romney’s view of McCain-Feingold  seems a bit of an unnecessary political stretch to me. All one need do is append “in the long term” to “maximize shareholder value” and walla – capitalism and Trusted Advisor become congruent and can live in harmony. Though there are certainly a good share of bad actors who ignored the long term, who actually believes Milton Friedman or any other rational economist would encourage firms to maximize from quarter to quarter, to heck with the consequences? That wouldn’t be rational and it wouldn’t actually maximize profits. The culprit is not the idea of capitalism, it is a business culture grown in the petri dish of B-school shortermism combined with highly competitive individuals who grew up in a society with less and less binding norms / societal cohesion (IMHO).

  7. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:


    Great comment, many thanks. I almost completely agree with all of it; almost. Let me elaborate a bit on both “agree” and “almost.”

    You are very right to call me out on using short-hand for what amounts to the sin of short-termism.  It is very much at the heart of the mistake.  And, I agree with you that a particular virulent form of short-termism has been taught in B-Schools. 

    But I have this nagging suspicion.  You are not alone in saying that the fault lies entirely in not “getting” rational long-termism; that if the bad actors only really did follow economic logic, they would in fact behave long-term, be more profitable, etc.

    Except that to believe that, you have to believe that a lot of really smart people are fundamentally stupid. And that’s where I have trouble.

    You’ve got me thinking, I need to write a post about “the fallacy of the fallacy of short-termism.” I wish I were better at math, but maybe I’ll tackle it anyway. Here’s the guts of it.

    There are two causes for rational short-termism.  One has to do with mistaking the whole for the parts, and one has to do with the outer-area limits of discounted present value analyses.

    As to the first, a big mega-corp in theory has everyone doing DCFs all the time; but the sum of the parts, I suspect, is not equal to the whole.  There is a calculus of risk that is lost when we break things down into ever-finer parts. And don’t forget, the real petri dish of short-termism applies that logic not just to time, but to domains.  What they really teach in b-school is to constantly break it down, break it down, break it down.  Analyze the parts.  At every opportunity, break it down. 

    The result is huge forests lost for trees.  In a theoretical land, this may be incorrect application of long-term thinking, but in this world, that’s angels on the heads of pins.  Just doesn’t happen too much.

    The other part is the outer limits of DCF.  In China, they may speak of investing for 100 years. Here, our culture is so steeped on “rational self-satisfaction” that we give the future value of our children’s civilization’s mental health a value of somewhere just about zero.  You can’t find a discount rate low enough to have a “rational” capitalist give a damn about whether company X Y Z is going to exist in 100 years, much less put up a nickel for it.  

    And, I would argue, that says something is missing in classic DCF analysis.  The risk rates are fundamentally missing the human dimension; either that, or we have to assume that the Chinese are “uncivilized” and only rational self-maximizing entities are entitled to make intelligent investments.  And we see how that’s played out.

    Maybe what i’m saying is you’re right about short-termism, but saying that’s so is still a long way from fixing it. It ain’t that obvious.

    Thank you for this by the way; this thought has been lingering in my head for over a year, I’ve got to develop it; you’ve given me the impetus.  And please, come back at me and say more about how you see this too. 


    • Rich Sternhell
      Rich Sternhell says:


      While I agree with each of you on certain of your points, I want to take issue with putting the blame on B schools.  They are an easy target, but I would argue that the real issue is what John Bogle calls the shift from ownership capitalism to managerial capitalism.  Executives have relatively short tenure.   Successful CEOs rarely last more than 5 to 10 years.  They can’t pass their businesses on to their families, only their wealth.  That wealth tends to be accumulated in the later years of their careers.  They have a short time to make their wealth accumulation significant and therefore their short term perspective is perfectly rational.  The issue isn’t capitalism.  Treating corporations run by executives with short term perspectives as people is a reflection of a much deeper problem.  We need to recognize that large multi-nationals are not the same as the small businesses all the candidates extoll in this interminable campaign.


    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      This is a late reply as I was unaware of these responses. I found them today while trying to figure out why I’ve stopped getting your blogs in my email inbox (not in spam folder).

      Regardless, I take your point that pure reason, even when adjusted for the long term view, might not always lead individuals, departments, teams, etc, to make the right business decisions.

      When we use the phrases “right” or “personal” or “treat customers as people” we are entering the world of values and ethics. And though much could be said about values and the lack thereof, I’d just like to make a very narrow assertion, which is that classical liberalism (Schumpeter, Friedman, unregulated political money, etc) is not somehow inherently incompatible with the values of TAA, the golden rule, or you name it.

      It’s not that I believe that a lot of “really smart people are fundamentally stupid” – they are fundamentally, well, human, frail, and always tempted to do what serves them in a thousand ways which aren’t quite the best ways to act. Your concept of trust is really an ethic, a way of behaving or acting, particularly applied to the business world. And I’d propose that such business ethics are equally necessary regardless of whether the economic system is guided by classical or modern liberalism.

      • Charlie Green
        Charlie Green says:


        I think that’s very right, and very thoughtful too.  I agree that classic liberalism is not inconsistent with this; also that “human-ness” is somehow a vital way to look at the whole issue. 

        Thanks for coming back into this loop. 

  8. Louise Altman
    Louise Altman says:

    Huge and important topic – well done with far more to say (and I hope from these pages).
    With a focus on developing greater emotional competencies with my business clients, I certainly come up against this Wall – I mean fear – the fear of intimacy. I believe it is pervasive throughout the business world (well it’s not confined to business just clearly codified there.)
    I’m pleased to see your reference to intimacy in your formula (which I share with some audiences along with your valuable book) as empathy, also a large part of my work.  My experience is that empathy, especially in business, is also viewed as a form of intimacy precisely because it is a feeling – a powerful one – often foreign in that context.
    This is such an important and evocative topic. I sense we are at the beginning out “outing” the taboo against feelings – and intimacy among we humans in the workplace.
    You’re a leader in that process.

  9. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:


    Thank you for those very kind words (and for the evocative language – I like “outing the taboo against feelings).



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