Risk is to Trust as Vaccine is to Immunity

Should you take the risk of mentioning price early on in a sales call?  Should you be candid about your less-than-perfect qualifications for a job?  When you notice the client looking a little distracted, should you take the risk of commenting on it?

In such situations I often hear, “That’s too risky, you can’t do that – you don’t have a trust relationship yet.” Or, “Well, sure you could do that, but only when you have a long history of trust.”

That is a big misconception.

The truth is, you can’t get trust without taking risks. In fact, it is the taking of risks itself that creates trust.

The Case of the Flu Vaccination 

Let’s say there’s a flu bug going around. You’re advised to get a vaccination. But it takes time out of your day, you fear getting a very small flu-like reaction to the vaccination, and you really don’t like needles. So you procrastinate, and never do get around to taking the vaccination.

Meantime, your best friend takes the vaccine the day it comes out.

Five weeks later, you get the flu.  Your friend doesn’t.  You feel miserable; you wish you’d taken the vaccine. In retrospect, the small pain of the needle, the minor inconvenience to your schedule, and the small risk of a mild reaction were nothing – nothing, I tell you – compared to the agony of the flu.

You should have taken the small pain – the vaccination – to prevent the larger pain – the flu. And so it is with trust.

Risk, Trust, and Sins of Omission

Risk and trust work the same way.  A small risk taken early prevents much greater risk down the road. Trust only grows when one party takes a risk, and the other party responds in a trust-based way.

  • You take the risk of answering a direct question about price, even though you haven’t established your value proposition yet. As a result, your client may or may not like your price, but they’ll see you to be responsive and transparent; they’ll trust you a bit more.
  • You take the risk of being very open about a relative weakness in your qualifications for a job. As a result, your client may or may not give you the job, but they’ll note your directness and trust you a bit more.
  • You note your client is distracted, and take the risk of commenting on it. Your client may or may not be startled, but they’ll appreciate your willingness to behave in a personal manner.

A vaccination mitigates larger disease. A small up-front risk mitigates larger business risk down the line.

We might call failure to take these risks “trust sins of omission.” They are failures to take a risk; the result is a guaranteed absence of trust.  The small risk may or may not go your way, but if you avoid taking that risk, then it’s guaranteed that you’ll not get the trust (unless your client initiates it, in which case you’re depending on someone else to make your luck).

Risk and Trust

Do you find yourself constantly backing off from taking those early, small risks? The common excuses I hear are reputed professionalism, concern for propriety, and a fear that the client will be embarrassed.

And so you do nothing.  And so trust takes forever. Or a competitor comes in and creates trust by taking a small risk, and your relationship just fades away.

Don’t omit the risk. Take it. Get the vaccination. Make your own luck. Make your own trust.

Terrorists and Convenience Stores: When Social Trust is Threatened

Many years ago, I consulted to a Texas-based convenience store chain.

They had a 150% store manager turnover rate. They wanted to identify characteristics of higher-tenure store managers, so they could hire more people like that.

Turns out that they also administered lie detector tests every month to every store manager about whether or not they were stealing. After about six months, managers figured, “I guess they’re expecting me to steal, and someone must be getting away with it—I’ll give it a try.”

And there’s your turnover.

A massively expensive approach to management. Note the cost of tests, the cost of theft. More importantly, the cost of forced turnover, and of the suspicion and paranoia in the system.

That’s what happens when the only response to a trust violation is to treat everyone like a suspect.

That explains one of the most expensive solutions to low trust in the world today—airport security systems. Imagine the savings if we could figure out how to target terrorists—savings in time, money, personnel, equipment—not to mention the general levels of suspicion and paranoia.

One reason for the cost is that we value fairness over efficiency. No matter it’s your next-door neighbor grandmother and her grand-daughter flying to Dubuque—she goes through the same x-ray machines as a sweating, furtive, cash-paid one-way ticket holder. Anything short of perfect screening isn’t sufficient for us to violate a core set of values around fairness.

So—treat everyone like a terrorist.

Another value is the cultural resistance to monetizing human lives. “If screening saves only one disaster,” we say. But outside the bright lights of the public, others have to make serious trade-off decisions all the time—doctors, public policy makers, safety engineers. The only way we can face those decisions is to hide them from public view.

Once in the public view—treat everyone like a terrorist.

Sarbanes Oxley is the result of a similar logic. Anyone could be an ethical terrorist, the logic goes. Better to realign entire industries to remove temptation rather than to make tough individual decisions about who to prosecute and imprison.

Treat everyone like a terrorist.

But the biggest reason of all may be a tendency to rely on systems rather than people. Seduced by technology and the siren song of metrics, and fueled by paranoia about people we don’t know, our social response to a connected world has been to systematize the human networks—instead of humanizing the systems.

If “everybody’s a terrorist” is our only solution to socially-hostile acts in a networked world, we quickly become hostage to the very thing we tried to prevent. We drown in costly solutions, trying to boil the ocean.

We need social solutions that:

• delegate accountability
• allow for human judgment
• recognize and deal with ambiguity and variance among people and situations
• allow a reasonable level of non-perfection of outcomes

and that do so in a socially acceptable manner.

You can’t trust everyone. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust anybody. But our social policies—and our norms—are blind to this simple truth.