How to Increase Trust in Organizations

Increasing Trust Within Your OrganizationI was grocery shopping Saturday. It was 2PM, 96 degrees out – pretty hot for New Jersey – and I was in the checkout line. The cashier had started sliding my purchases through the register, when suddenly I noticed a bag left over from the customer before me. She had left and gone to her car.

The woman doing the bagging noticed it at the same time. She grabbed the lady’s bag and dashed out into the heat. She was making pretty good time for a woman in her 60s, and we all could see her out the window as she finally caught up, handed over the bag, and started back.

Then the cashier suddenly exclaimed, “Omigosh, she left two other bags as well!” Looking quickly at me and the woman behind me in line, she said, “Will you two please excuse me for just a minute? I’ll be right back.” And she too took off after the forgetful lady, with two bags in tow. She was in her 20s, and made very good time.

It occurred to me I could slide a few groceries over the line and into my bag and escape without paying. (I don’t do such things, but the idea did show up in my mind). Then the elderly woman behind me in line said, “You know, I don’t mind one little bit waiting for someone who’s doing a good deed like that.”  Neither did I, I said, neither did I.

When the cashier and the bagging lady came back, we both complimented them, and they blushed a bit and said thank you. (I sent a complimentary email to ShopRite’s HQ later that night with the store number, employee name and cash register number, all of which were on the receipt).

So my question is: how do you get employees to behave like that? I mean generously, based on principle, willing to take certain risks, confident to act in the moment. How do you keep from getting sullen employees who talk about “career-limiting moves,” who won’t lift a hand or take a risk to help another?

How Do You Induce Values-based Behavior in an Organization?

Earlier that same day, I had the opportunity to briefly visit a Sears store, a Macy’s store, and a Bed Bath and Beyond unit. Sears was awful – employees keeping their distance from customers, 100 feet away, pretending not to notice. Macy’s was a little better, but still sullen, under-staffed, and radiating not-helpfulness.

BB&B was a huge contrast. Several employees, busy doing other things, asked me if they could help. I asked two for help, and they both went out of their way to do so.

How does this happen?

The standard answer in most businesses, I’m afraid, is to focus on the wrong things: typically  incentives, communications, and procedures.

The more I see of business, the more convinced I become that the single most powerful way to create values-based behavior is none of the above – it is to do it yourself, and to talk about it with others.

The Usual Suspects

Incentives appeal to the individual’s rational economic or ego-satisfying needs. Fine and dandy, but if you’re trying to incent selfless behavior, the concept of rewards is just a tad self-contradictory.

There is probably (I’m guessing) more money spent on communications than on any other “solution” to issues of trust, ethical behavior, and customer-focus. Companies love to pronounce their values to their customers, and reinforce them internally in posters, newsletters, and blogs. The problem is, impersonal companies communicating about personal relationships is some kind of category mistake.

And procedures? The whole point of values-based behavior is that the employee extrapolates from principles in the moment. Rehearsing and drilling doesn’t help extrapolate values, it replaces that process with rote memory.

Role Modeling

Think of how we learn from our parents. Think of the sports or public figures we admire (there are still a few). In all cases, we are influenced by what they do – not by what they say they will do, or did do, or wish they’d done.

When it comes to values, I suspect BB&B has leaders in their operations organization who both walk the talk, and talk it too. People who lead by example, and who are convinced that values like customer assistance are valid only if kept sharpened by use.

I suspect Angie the cashier at ShopRite was hired partly because she exhibited values. I suspect that the folks managing her store make a point of being helpful and customer-focused, and engage customers about values like that. I suspect it didn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t take the risk of leaving her cash drawer and my groceries unattended – because her leadership would have trusted their customers and done the same thing – and she knew it.

We have overdone the behavioral, incentives-based, needs-maximizing best practices model of human resources. We have under-estimated the human power of changing humans. After all, the business of relating to other people is personal.

Is Building Trust More Like Baking a Cake, or Like Being a Better Person?

If you want teach someone to bake a cake, you’d give them a recipe. First, do this; then, do this. The result is ‘cake.’

You can be pretty confident of the effectiveness of your advice. Further, if someone presents you with a cake, you can confidently infer the steps they had followed to bake it.

If you want to teach someone to become a better person, it gets a little trickier. Defining ‘better’ turns out to be the least of it.  Are there Twelve Steps to Becoming Better? Why not five? Or does it take thirty? Worse yet:

  • If someone does the steps – how likely is it they’ll become “better?”
  • If someone is better – does it mean they followed the steps to get there?

And which approach characterizes trust?

Causality and Predictability

Strictly speaking, causality can never be proven. But casually, we infer it all the time. Tell any fool who doubts the power of causality to stick his finger in a flame and see what happens.

So if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you baked that great cake,” you can give an explanation that makes a great deal of causal sense.  “The key is  to whip egg whites just right,” you might say, and “make sure you bake it just a little longer than the recipe says.”

We understand immediately that whipping egg whites causes a change in consistency, and that time-in-oven affects moistness and firmness. On top of that: if they go home and whip the egg whites and bake it just a little longer, they are very likely to get the same results you did.

But if someone says to you, “Explain to me how you became a great person,” you might say, “A lot of suffering went into that.”  Or, “I read the most amazing book.” That leaves a lot unsaid.

First, a lot of people suffer without becoming great people. Suffering causes lots of things, becoming a great person being only one of many possibilities. Most importantly, does it mean that if you suffer, you will become a great person?

Ditto for reading a book. Maybe that’s how you became great, but how does book-reading in particular cause greatness?  And if I read that book, will I become great?

Becoming a great person is probably more like learning to love, or to write a song. You have to learn to be open, to listen to others, to struggle to understand what others mean when they say something. You probably have to get in touch with your feelings, feel the feelings of others, sometimes give up control.

For a million reasons, the dysfunction of our age is applying cake-baking solutions to great-people problems, rather than the reverse.

Snake Oil, Management Gurus and Trust

A lot of advice, wisdom and selling in this world exemplifies that dysfunction.

In the training business, we have baked in (pun intended) this sort of approach, by insisting that trainers supply language like “participants will master the skills and behaviors of X so they can produce results Y at a level of Q.”

But it’s hardly unique to training. Think of most self-help books, and an extraordinary number of blogposts and magazine-rack tabloids.

Here’s a generic formula you can use, with a few examples:

[Number] [Adjective] Ways to [Verb]  [Adjective]  [Object] to [Gerund phrase]

  • Six Key Ways to Attract High Net Worth Clients to Improve your Planning Practice
  • Ten Innovative Ways to Write Powerful Copy to Maximize Your Blog Traffic
  • Five Proven Ways to Attract a Super-Sexy Date to Amp Up Your Love Life
  • Twelve Most Powerful Ways to Deliver Hi-impact Coaching to Expand Your Consulting Practice

How many books do you know that propose to identify the X most critical determinants of a successful company? Can you say Good to Great? In Search of Excellence?

Cake-Bake Great People?  Or Be Great Cake Bakers?

There’s value in both approaches. But we need to be balanced about it, and as I said above, the greater danger of our time lies in mechanist explanations.

Take trust, for example. Here are two contrasting approaches.

The cake-baking example is  a new report from Edelman, on their annual trust barometer, called What Drives Trust. It uses regression analysis on survey data to suggest 16 Trust Drivers, including “offers high quality products” and “treats employees well.”

Fair enough. Of course, few companies set out to produce low quality products or treat employees badly. But there’s value in forcing them to compare their data with others. And the list of 16 as a whole tells a story, as opposed to other lists that might have been created.

More critically, though, is how the information will be used? Will it be deployed in project management fashion, assigning someone the job of treating employees better so that trust can be improved? Or is the value more heuristic in nature, making for richer discussions? In complex cases like trust, the latter is more clear.

The second approach is characterized by this Management Innovation Exchange video by CEO John Mackey, Can You Measure Trust?  He suggests Whole Foods’ primary metric is an output – morale – rather than inputs or causes.  He argues not against measurements, but in favor of feeling, intuition, instinct. We need more of this, he suggests, rather than more cake-baking metrics.  The best tool, he suggests, is to “be able to sense and feel.”

When it comes to trust, the value of metrics lie in getting us to think, rather than to task and manage. Even then, thinking alone is not nearly enough: trust also requires a bit of heart.

So do a lot of things. Not all life is like baking a cake.

All Change is Linguistic

That title is lifted from Peter Block, and I want to make sure credit is given where credit is due.

I think those four words are wonderfully meaningful and I want to add my own take on it (any flawed interpretation is all mine, not Block’s). It has to do with a larger question: the relationship between thinking and doing.

Do Thoughts Drive Actions, or Do Actions Drive Thoughts?

This is not some abstraction. It matters greatly to businesses whether you can better think your way into right action, or act your way into right thinking.

For example: can you better train for soft skills via role-playing, or through readings and multiple-choice quizzes? Are pick-up lines best practiced in a bar? What about sales pitches?

So, do thoughts drive action or does action drive thoughts? The proper answer is ‘yes.’ Actually ‘yes, but it depends.’ Proving causality of anything is an impossibility, much less proving proportional causality. But in the commonsense world we all live in, we can see that the arrow points both ways. The only useful question is: when does it point which way?

Acting Your Way Into Right Thinking

This is the kind of phrase you hear in 12-step programs, or from motivational speakers, or—interestingly—lean management. It usually means, “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [quit drinking] [lose weight] [ask her out] [practice what you preach]."

You also hear it in HR groups, advocating for certain kinds of change management: “You’ve been kidding yourself all these years by talking a good game; when are you actually going to [go to the networking meeting] [hire someone not a mirror image of us] [actually promote on values].”

Seems to me these are typically situations where ‘whole body’ involvement is required. You can’t just isolate one aspect of a situation, but rather you have to engage physically and emotionally in a full sense.

When Thinking Drives Action

Does that mean thinking works better in small, focused change efforts? Yes, but that’s only part of the story. For example, visualization is used by athletes to tweak the mindset, or attitude—before a golf swing, before a marathon. 

But there’s another sense in which thinking drives action: it dates back to Aristotle, who suggested there is a steel cable leading from thinking to doing.

Aristotle has his modern counterparts in NLP theorists, change specialists and neuro-everybodies who all point to the semi-conscious inclination of the brain to create beliefs, assumptions, habits, instincts—and then to act on them. 

How do you drive thoughts? Some tried-and-true methods include message-repetition (depending on your perspective, this equates either to propaganda or to staying ‘on message’), linkage (‘Marlon Brando smoked, it must be cool’), or authority (‘my doctor recommends it, it must be good for me’). You may think that in this day of digital social media we are immune to direct mail and tv ads from Madison Avenue—wrong, wrong, wrong, the same techniques are here, just in new clothing.

All Change is Linguistic

Full circle back to Peter Block. One of the most profound ways we have of unconsciously altering mindsets and attitudes is through language. Most overtly, Big Message repetition uses language. Chant “Obama was born abroad” enough times and you’ll get 20-30% of the US public to believe it.

But it isn’t just the denotation of words that drives change. It’s the emotional tone as well. The language of etiquette and empathy drives reciprocity—the most important form of influence, according to Robert Cialdini. The tones in which such words are said also add influence. Even the vocabulary of differing languages (French vs German) convey differing meanings to those who hear them.

To Think? Or To Behave?

If you’re wondering whether to change people or organizations, the usual answer is ‘both.’ But it does make sense to lead with one or another depending on the situation. 

The power of frequent close, personal, physical interaction—in schools, in the military, in marriage—probably does more to tear down racial barriers then any educational program. Better language constructs will follow.

But if you’re trying to get people to behave rightly in a corporate merger, for example, slogans are your friend—lead with language like ‘make a friend first,’ or ‘the first word in merger is ‘me,’ or ‘no more old-company name.’  

Whether you start with the behavior or the language, you’ll get to both. All change is linguistic, sooner or later.

The Not-so-Great Social Media Debate

If you’re like me, you enjoyed the recent debate stimulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article titled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. (You might also enjoy his follow-up interactions with readers).

In nutshell, Gladwell compared a 1960 sitdown strike in the American South with the social activist uses of social media, particularly as promoted by digiterati royalty Clay Shirky. He found it wanting. Twitter is great for promoting awareness, Gladwell says, but hardly for promoting commitment. And the civil rights movement had its own channels for promotion; word did get around even pre-twitter.

I kind of enjoy Gladwell’s contrarian, “I prefer real books.” But he hardly has the last word. For an example of a good critique, including Shirky’s reaction, read Scotnetwork’s well-covered viewpoint.

But there’s a broader perspective here that we’re all missing.

Ho Hum, Another Boring Old vs. New Debate

Gladwell went back to 1960 for his example. Fast forward two decades, to the introduction of voicemail in about 1980. You can read about the technical history of voicemail, but I want to focus on what I remember as the commercial reaction at the time.

I was working at a consulting firm, the MAC Group, at the time. (Jamie Dimon, for a few months, administratively reported to me—one of my better party trivia). Voicemail came to us as a Rolm product. At the time, three aspects of the system quickly grabbed our attention.

Implication One. Back then there was a key job—that of telephone receptionist. Like many other companies, a single person typically sat near the front door of the office, and performed two functions: greeting those who came in the door, and answering the phone. First implication: job insecurity.

Implication Two. Cost-benefit. As I recall, quite a bit of time was spent analyzing (we were, after all, a management consulting firm) the cost-benefit ratio of the new system. Was it a new item, with new value? So thought the nerds of the time. Or was it simply a new efficiency toy, to be justified by the job redundancies it made possible? So thought the hard-asses and Luddites of the time.

Implication Three. How could you make money off this thing? To be honest, I recall less of this discussion around voicemail than around the other two–but this was early in our love for things technoid. This question—how it would make money—became the obsessive question for later generations of techno-toys. Think laptops, PDAs, LANs, document management systems—and all that was before we even got the Big Deal—the Internet.

All of these waves of technology add up to one conclusion above all others: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  The more things change, the more it’s the same thing.

The Things That Stay the Same

1.    We constantly mistake plumbing for business models. A phone is not a business model. Neither is voicemail. Neither is Twitter. They all start out as cool ideas, then get anointed as business models, then quickly move to plumbing. Nothing wrong with plumbing. Though before too long, you notice that it’s only plumbers who make money off plumbing.

2.     The real issue is not efficiency, it’s effectiveness. The importance of voicemail lay not in reducing secretarial positions, but in advancing the quality and range of communications possibilities. Voicemail didn’t ruin communication—it altered it. Ditto Twitto.

3.    The new issues get framed in the old terms. Twitter and Facebook are neither the savior of civilization, nor the antichrist. They are not good, or bad. New and old media will find their own levels. One is wide and flat; one is deep and narrow. The world has room for both. They will sort out.

 Maybe it’s me showing my age, but I find the debates interesting, yet ultimately boring. 

I prefer, of course, to think of that as wisdom, borne of perspective. 

You, of course, will think what you will. That’s what we as humans do.   

Are Book Titles Getting Twitter-ized?

Have you noticed the plethora of one-word nonfiction book titles lately?

The following titles are taken from the top 60 best sellers on Amazon’s list of business books. That means nearly 1/4 of the top books have one word titles. Yes, they have subtitles, but other than that, I’m being a purist, and didn’t even count titles with ‘the.’ (Like ‘The Secret,’ which has no business being on a business list anyway).

Blink, Think
Stick, Switch
Tribes, Outliers
Nudge, Sway
Linchpin, Rework
Drive, Mojo
Freefall, Aftershock

Most naturally fall into categories of opposites. For every one word title, there is an equal and opposite title, seems to be the rule.

I can’t imagine we had this many one-word titles in recent history, and I suspect it means something.

The Curmudgeonly Interpretation: The Decline of Rome, redux

There is an obvious interpretation which appeals to modern Luddites and curmudgeons: "It’s the Twitter that done it!" You can write the rest of that post yourself.

Variations on that theme include, "Anybody who thinks he has 5000 friends doesn’t have any," and "Kids these days don’t even know their times tables."

There is another view, of course, and that is simply that the meanings of words change over time. In Jorge Luis Borges classic short story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote,”  , the author Menard resolves to write the greatest novel of all time. Which, as everyone knows, is Don Quixote. So after great labor, Menard triumphantly succeeds in writing Don Quixote, in its original Spanish.

But of course, the meaning of the words had changed over the centuries, hence it turned out that Menard had not written the greatest novel of all time after all; whereupon he died forlorn of disappointment (as I recall).

An awful lot of wasted energy gets expended on debates over the changing meanings of words like ‘friend.’ Too bad we don’t have the ability to just say ‘friend-like-it-meant-in-1957’ and ‘friend-like-it-meant-when-it-became-a-verb.’

Not Better or Worse, Just Different Books

Let’s just stipulate that there were some good things about the 1957-model Friend that were lost in the transition to the New Model. But the reverse is true too. With 2000 friends, you can find someone up at any hour of the night, for example. That’s non-trivial, as far as I’m concerned.

I just spent 3 hours of a 5-hour flight reading a really good old-style book called Crisis of Character: Building Corporate Reputation in the Age of Skepticism, by Peter Firestein. Not a one-word title. Because, in this case, it’s not a one-word book. (Excellent book, by the way).

Then again, I’m a Malcolm Gladwell fan; I’m not about to join the backlash against him. Blink? Outlier? Yeah, I get it, and I get it quick. Maybe I don’t have to read the whole book to ‘get it,’ but I always do anyway, because I love reading Malcolm.

Yes, I think one-word titles are different, and new, and here to stay.  And I’m sure it is all part of “the twitter,” we all have A.D.D. now, and so on. And some of that’s good, and some of that’s bad.

What it is, it’s just different.

My favorite old Greek philosopher (maybe the only one I remember) Heraclitus said, “you cannot step in the same river twice.” True dat, Heracky!

How Business Underestimates the Power of Belief

The other day I had a conversation with a client about how to change belief systems in an organization.

In Hellhole, a disturbing article from the March 31, 2009 issue of The New Yorker (may be accessible online only to subscribers),  Atul Gawande writes about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners, convincingly arguing that it amounts to torture.

The story has a lot to tell us about psychology and civil rights. It feels almost like trivializing to draw conclusions from it about business, but I’ll do so anyway.   It is an object example of the power of ideology—beliefs on steroids—to overcome data. So it has lessons for changing corporate beliefs.

Gawande describes rhesus monkey experiments from the 1950s, which evoked public revulsion against animal rights abuse. The monkeys—acquired as infants—were raised like hospitalized infants of the day. They were kept in isolation to prevent infection. This meant, however, they were raised without mothers.

They ended up obliterated socially, permanently withdrawn, incapable of social interaction.

Prisoners of war put in isolation routinely describe solitary confinement as the worst form of torture. What John McCain described about his North Vietnam experience was what Terry Anderson described in Beirut: severe mental debilitation. And it is precisely what we in the US impose on prisoners—more than any other country in history, and more than our own country did only 20 years ago.

The question Gawande poses for us is:

If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

The US now keeps about 25,000 to 100,000 people in solitary confinement. Worse yet, as Gawande says, “It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years.” A federal court ruled it torture back in the 1890s.

Does it work? The overwhelming answer is, no. It doesn’t reduce violence. The UK has abandoned the approach, and now has fewer prisoners in solitary than we do in Maine alone. It is hugely expensive. Most state prison commissioners are against it. A federal study recommended against it.

Yet even John McCain won’t label it torture. Nor has Barrack Obama. Prisoner commissioners won’t speak openly against it. 

Why? Because the people—meaning the American electorate of the last several decades—don’t believe it. If a politician were to suggest isolation is torture, he or she would rapidly become an ex-politician.

Instead, the American people have come to believe that bad behavior deserves punishment. Very bad behavior deserves more punishment. And a subtle jump occurs here—from arguing that people “deserve” punishment to arguing that punishment changes people or conditions.

This is wrong, as in "incorrect." Solitary confinement doesn’t change behavior or conditions. It doesn’t cure people. It makes it all worse.

But the fact that it is wrong is a pitiful thing compared to people’s beliefs.

In today’s business, beliefs are belittled. What matters is results, behaviors, outcomes—facts. We get there by data, numbers, analytics, metrics. Great managers are data-driven.

They are not. 

Most business people are as belief-hobbled and ideologically blinkered as any other human being, which is to say, a great deal.

Worse yet, one of the strongest belief systems in business today is that centering around corporate change: that it is driven by altering stimulus and response. Not unlike monkeys, or the reward-punishment cycle in prisons. This model is true generally—often not true specifically. It matters how we handle it.

Believing that we are primarily rational creatures is one of our more irrational of our beliefs—and one of the strongest as well.