Constructive Hypocrisy and Trust

A stimulating conversation over on LinkedIn, sparked by Adam Turteltaub of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, leads me to explore the relationship of hypocrisy to trust, authenticity and truth-telling.

How can there by such a thing as “constructive hypocrisy,” you ask? Well, it’s a good term to describe how we handle the uncomfortable no-man’s land between the letter of the law and the nuanced nature of the world.

Example: The 55 mph speed limit. Enforcement kicks in at about 65. We say “about” because it has to stay loose, else it becomes the new 55. How can you justify people driving 57 when the limit is 55? You can’t. But we do all the time. Constructive hypocrisy.

Bill Bennett wrote about constructive hypocrisy as key to social functioning back in the 90s.  The brilliant (and outrageously controversial) Herman Kahn used the term to describe the social value of plausible deniability (“A rural American man doesn’t want his daughter to be able to buy pornography at the corner store; and if she does, he wants to be able to say he didn’t know about it.”)

But we don’t need no stinkin’ highfalutin definitions. Here are two that’ll do fine. Have you ever said:

“I’ll call you right back in 1 minute.” Which means between 3 and 5 minutes.

“Let’s do lunch,” which of course means ‘let’s don’t do lunch.’

If you’ve said those things, then you’re a constructive hypocrite.  Sometimes, anyway. Congratulations.

The Role of Hypocrisy

Constructive hypocrisy gives us breathing room from the constant cacophonous confrontation between the puritanical rule-givers among us, and the anarchistic forces just waiting to destroy civilization. 

·    What does the flight attendant do when the announcement says ‘turn off your cell phones now’ and the passenger covers up the screen to finish the email? Constructive hypocrisy (for a while).

·    What does the cop say when it’s a first violation and the person is clearly not a trouble maker, and the violation was narrow? I’ll let you off this time with a warning….Constructive hypocrisy.

·    What are sentencing guidelines for judges, except constructive hypocrisy?

Here are some situations where the world could use more, not less, constructive hypocrisy:

·    Gay marriage

·    Three strikes you’re out sentencing rules

·    Abortion (oh boy, I can see the emails now)

·    the Middle East

On the other hand, there are limits to constructive hypocrisy—at some point it becomes denial. Think of US immigration policy, for example, or municipal pension funding. Over a decade ago, don’t ask/don’t tell was constructive hypocrisy; as time passed, it became uncomfortable denial. The policy didn’t change; society did.

 Hypocrisy, Authenticity and Trust

On the face of it, you’d think trust can’t co-exist with hypocrisy. But on closer examination, I think they are complementary, maybe even interdependent.

Constructive hypocrisy is a socially acceptable way of agreeing to disagree. We both choose to look the other way, rather than insist on a constant confrontation of values. Done in the right proportion, it is the triumph of relationship over principle.  

Can I trust someone who’s being hypocritical? In many cases, yes, precisely because their willingness to be hypocritical rather than provoke a confrontation over principle means they actually value my relationship over one of their opinions. 

What about authenticity? Only in a narrow sense are they in conflict. For me to indulge in constructive hypocrisy doesn’t mean I’m being inauthentic about my beliefs; it means I’m being authentic about the balance of my principles and the need to get along with others in the world. 

Alfred Hitchcock knew that imagination trumped vision (the shower scene in Psycho); other directors know that a bit of clothing is more erotic than pure nudity.  In the same sense, a bit of hypocrisy lubricates social interactions better than does undiluted truth.  

If you’d like to talk more about this concept, maybe we could do lunch?  

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Trust

In case you haven’t heard, the world’s best and most famous golfer has got himself into a bit of a mess.

A sex scandal? To be sure. A public relations debacle? You betcha. But what does it tell us about trust?

The Longer You Wait…

It started back on November 27; that’s 23 days before I’m writing this. That’s a long time in scandal-years to go without comment by the protagonist.

It was December 14, two weeks and change into the story, that Accenture dropped Tiger. That too was a long time, but Accenture was by far the earliest and most definitive of his endorsements to drop him. On the day Accenture dropped him, Nike and Pepsi conspicuously announced their continued endorsement. (Tag Heuer, part of LVMH, hedged its bets, later dropping him).

Woods has been visibly silent to date. Now, he is being given public advice by none other than Snoop Dogg.

Tiger didn’t lack public relations advice from the public. The NY Times on November 28 quoted Mike Paul, founder of MGP Associates, a PR firm:

“My advice to Tiger is pretty simple,” Paul said. “Own it, say it yourself, say it yourself with full conviction and responsibility and get it out of the way.

“You have an opportunity to change rumor and innuendo into truth. Moving past fear and doubt — that’s something they did not do well during the first 24 hours.”

Even a Saturday Night Live parody isn’t the height of bad PR. Yesterday’s NYTimes op-ed by Frank Rich now positions Woods as the poster child for a generation of liars and posers. Heavy stuff.

Predictions are risky, of course, but we probably all agree that Tiger’s delay makes it more difficult, not less, for him to stage a comeback in the court of PR.

The PR Perspective: Tiger Just the Latest to Be Taught the Watergate Lesson

Maybe Tiger was listening to his lawyers. In such cases, criminal defense attorneys often warn their clients not to say anything. Hindsight is 20-20, but it seems that Tiger’s legal issues were nothing compared to his PR issues.

You would think that if the world learned nothing from Watergate, it was that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. And yet, consider the list of public figures that continue to figure they can outrun the capacity for the truth to embarrass them. John Edwards, Bill Clinton, John Ensign, Jim McGreevey, Kobe Bryant, Eliot Spitzer, Bernie Kerik, Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Swaggart, Gary Hart, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, David Letterman, Ted Haggard, Mark Sanford. And on, and on.

From a PR perspective, the answer is clear. Get the truth out, fast. It’s what I teach as Name It and Claim It. It is first and foremost an acknowledgement of reality. It may, or may not, then lead to an apology. Job 1 is stop pretending you’re in charge of reality—get the truth out, because if you don’t, it will most definitely out you.

What Scandals Tell Us About Trust

At the heart of trust is one’s relationship to the Truth. The Trust Equation consists of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. If someone ranks high on the first three and low on the last, we consider them trustworthy. And if someone lies, it calls all four into question.

He who lies is, by definition, not credible. If he lied in a calculated, ongoing way, we have to question his motives—which suggests very high self-orientation. If he lies in a careful, calculated, painstaking manner, then we question his intimacy—we can’t trust what he says even in confidential, seemingly intimate, moments. And if he carefully lies from selfish motives, we certainly don’t find him reliable.

This is damning stuff. But what troubles us most is the implied sense of arrogance. The implication is that the liar believes we are stupid enough to be played for saps. And the longer the delay in telling the truth, the more the continued arrogance. It suggests the liar still believes he can spin us.

Consider Spitzer—damned for his hypocrisy as a do-gooder, then caught. By contrast, his successor Governor Patterson, on his 2nd day, called a press conference to pre-emptively confess all sorts of drug use and sexcapades by himself and his wife. Yawn, said the press.

But it’s more than just truth-telling. We want the hypocrisy dealt with as well. Letterman owned up immediately, but he also apologized. Interestingly, Patterson confessed quickly, but didn’t apologize. Both are in the American tradition. We’re not as Puritanical as Europeans make us out to be; we are a tolerant nation when it comes to all sorts of activities. But what we don’t want is someone who lies about his motives. It’s OK for Barney Frank to be gay; it’s not OK for Larry Craig to torturously insist he isn’t.

What Tiger Can Do

If Tiger were single, it’d be easier for him. What he can’t do, however, is to continue being hypocritical by pretending to be the marrying kind (unless he undergoes some massive conversion). Nor can he continue to pretend he’s in charge of the Truth by insisting on some right to privacy. He gave that up when he received endorsements.

There is one party that came out of this well, I think, and that is Accenture. Tiger’s rectitude was more important to them than to Nike, given their respective businesses. Accenture took decisive action, which is what values-based companies do.

Their silence about their decision, unlike Tiger’s, I take to be principled: preaching ethics in an ethics scandal just highlights your own form of arrogance. Best to be silent and let others formulate their own opinions.

What’s yours?

What Con Men Can Teach Us About Trust

Regular Trust Matters readers know I speak positively about trust. But there is no trust without risk. Trust can be misplaced, or abused. Bad consequences ensue.

Thanks to prodding from regular reader Martin Dalgleish, I think it’s time to explore the dark side of trust. Trust can be violated at a personal level; at an institutional and societal level; and, of particular interest to this blog, in the realms of advice-giving and sales.

Let’s start with the personal level in this post.

“Clark Rockefeller” was in the news this summer for kidnapping his own daughter. Turns out his real name wasn’t Rockefeller. In fact, very little that people thought about him turned out to be real.

Rockefeller is one version of a con man. The Boston Globe’s does a nice job of explaining how it is that he fooled so many people—two wives, the social elites of Greenwich and San Marino, California, brokerage firms—into believing that he was a wealthy heir of the Rockefeller fortune.

But how?

From the article:

We size up someone’s trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them…it’s the first thing we decide about a person, and once decided, we do all kind of elaborate gymnastics to believe in people….As in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously.

Yet human society would not exist without trust…The art of the con is based on a variation of this idea: that trust is more reflexive than skepticism. Once people form an initial impression of someone or something, they seem to have a hard time convincing themselves that what they once believed is actually untrue.

More bad news: research suggests our “trust" is based on things like cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc.

You can fake trust. It’s not easy, but it can be done. There are plenty of slicksters slinging get-rich-quick schemes—the same names appear in boiler-room stock sales, then in death annuities, then in condos, then in no-doc loans. These con men are talented cynics.

Hollywood romanticizes the con man in movies like The Sting and Paper Moon; like the whore with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman), it’s a Hollywood fairytale feel-good staple.

The feel-good myth here is that once we uncover everyone’s true motives, the con will be revealed. It was either a real con by a black-hat Evil One; or a pseudo-con by the true white hat who is simply avenging a deeper wrong (Batman, Zorro). Motives determine all in this fairy-tale view of trust.

But here it gets tricky. In truth, the best con cons the con artist as well as the mark.

Most actors try to find a part of themselves that can relate to their character—then act from that deeply-felt affinity. Most salespeople are good at believing in what they’re selling. Most demagogues are true believers.

What we learn from the movies—and from politics, and religion—is that revealing true motives will reveal the con. Ah, so sorry, not true. The best con incorporates sincerity.

A fool who believes he can trust a sincere con is simply a misguided fool. Sincerity may be a necessary condition for trusting someone; it surely is not a sufficient condition. Worse yet, it’s not even a high hurdle to overcome. It ain’t that hard to believe.

The best way to be trusted is still to be trustworthy. And if you’re looking to trust, be careful of using sincerity as a shortcut. As George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And the easiest way to fake sincerity is to simply believe your own con.

(Any political parallels the reader chooses to draw are entirely the reader’s own responsibility).