Hamburgers, Confidence and Trust

It was a beautiful day in March, warm and sunny. My husband and I spent the morning kayaking on Seattle’s Lake Washington. Afterwards, we were ready for a hearty lunch. We found the perfect spot: a restaurant with sidewalk-seating in the sun. 

We settled in and placed our order for burgers and iced tea. The waiter brought us our drinks. Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more…way too long.

Between the time the waiter delivered our drinks and the time he delivered our burgers, we never saw him. 

What we didn’t know was that this restaurant was a sports bar, this day was the first game of March Madness, and the local team was playing. Inside, the bar was packed. The kitchen was overwhelmed. Once the game started and we heard the fans screaming, we figured out what was going on. 

We could not find our waiter. With no way to communicate with him, we had a tough decision to make. Should we stay or walk out? We stayed and eventually had okay burgers.

This is a story of the difference between confidence and trust.

During our extended wait, once we realized how busy the kitchen and the wait staff were, we wondered if our order had even been delivered to the kitchen. We wondered how long it would take the kitchen to make our burgers. How many orders were in line ahead of us?

These questions are about confidence: we did not have confidence in the kitchen or the restaurant. There was no face attached to our lack of confidence. We lacked confidence in the process. 

During our wait, we also wondered about the waiter. Where was he? Why wasn’t he communicating with us? We didn’t even have a chance to ask him about our concerns because he just disappeared. 

These questions are about trust. We did not trust the waiter. Trust is personal. It’s about another person. 

I thought about the difference between trust and confidence when it came to my clients. What is the source of their trust and confidence in me? And since many of my clients are professional practitioners, it’s useful for them to think about how they generate trust and confidence in their clients.

Clients want to have confidence in our professional competence: a tax lawyer’s knowledge of tax law, a surgeon’s skill in the operating room, a real estate agent’s knowledge of the market, my skill as an executive coach.  

But that has nothing to do with trust.

Clients have trust in me because of my personal characteristics: the care and concern I show towards them and their needs, the degree to which I am predictable and dependable.

Why does this distinction matter? Because there are different paths we can take to increase the level of trust and the level of confidence our clients have in us. 

When we want to increase confidence, we take steps to increase our knowledge and skills and we provide clients and prospects with information about our competence (hence all the letters after my name). Competence can be increased in the classroom. 

Confidence can also be increased by delegating work to competent others. I chose my financial advisor not simply on the trust I have in him, but also because of the confidence I have in the competence of the company standing behind him. 

Trust is won or lost in personal interactions. Trust is built over time by working together, dealing with difficult decisions together, experiencing and repairing breakdowns in the relationship.

On that warm and sunny March day, we were hungry not just for burgers but for the trust and confidence required for a relaxing dining experience. Unfortunately, although the burgers came, no trust in the waiter and no confidence in the restaurant were served that day. 

© 2010 Ann Kruse. All rights reserved. 

Are You a Competent Jerk or a Lovable Fool?

Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo wrote in “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks” in the Harvard Business Review (June 2005) about how people choose who they work with.

“In most cases, people choose their work partners according to two criteria. One is competence at the job … the other is likability.”

Arrayed on a two-by-two competency vs. likeability matrix, everyone prefers to affiliate with the lovable star–no one with the incompetent jerk. No surprise there.

But what happens when we are forced to choose from the last two quadrants–lovable fool and competent jerk? Place your bets, now.

Based on data from four diverse organizations and over 10,000 work relationships, Casciaro and Lobo discovered (drum roll….) —

Yep, you guessed it. We prefer the lovable fool – even though we may not readily admit it.

We say out loud that we prefer skills and expertise (it sounds unprofessional and illogical not to) and that being “nice” is a nice “bonus.” But in practice, their study showed that your personal feelings about your colleague play a more important role in forming work relationships than do your evaluations of their competence.

“In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: If someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people don’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer.”

Feelings trump rational thought. Again.

Implication: our clients would rather we be lovable fools than competent jerks. Which means we’d be better off if we spent more time boosting our likability than our competence, despite what our clients say out loud.

There may be a better business case for charm school than for business school.