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?  

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).

Faking It Doesn’t Make It

Remember Leave it to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell? Always nice to Mrs. Cleaver—but always working an angle. The unctuous, silver-tongued slickster—devious, always in it for himself.

Haskell played the role of evil in a morality tale—the black-hat guy of the adolescent crowd. When he got his come-uppance, Good triumphed (though of course we were titillated by his escapades on the way).

What Eddie Haskell did best was to fake sincerity. He couldn’t fool us, of course; though poor Mrs. Cleaver was a reliable sucker.

Haskell was TV’s tame version of Hollywood’s innocent; the rural rube with a pure heart, dazzled by the sophisticated city slicker/ hustler—until (s)he finds, as everyone had warned, that he’s a cad, a con, a hustler.

He was faking sincerity.

An Eddie Haskell phenomenon has been coalescing in business. Business is becoming adept at mouthing sincerities about relationships—but in service to itself, not to the nominal objects of those relationships—customers, suppliers, employees.

Have we succeeded in faking sincerity so well that we have fooled ourselves?

Some examples:

1. From an article by UC Berkely Business School professor Lynn Upshaw:

Marketers need to consider a new calculus: "return on marketing integrity"—that is, a new type of "ROMI"—which can lead to stronger business performance.

Traditional return on marketing investment is calculated using gross margin generated by marketing efforts (GM), minus the marketing investment (I), divided by that investment: ROMI = (GM – I) ÷ I. The calculation for return on marketing integrity is identical, except that investment is replaced with marketing integrity.

This language comes awfully close to suggesting that integrity is a virtue insofar as and to the extent it pays off on the bottom line.


2. From a Wall Street client seated next to me before my after-dinner talk on being a Trusted Advisor:

“Trusted Advisor? If it gets me greater share of customer wallet, I’m all for it.”

The implication: trust is a virtue—if you can make money on it.

3. From a posting by Steve Yastrow on Tom Peters’ weblog:

In an age of interchangeable products and easily duplicated services, customer relationships have become one of the most powerful competitive advantages available to a business—one of the best ways to keep the competition away from your customers.

I doubt Yastrow intends it—but the language can be read as suggesting that relationships are justified by their ability to competitively advantage a company. (Consider a parallel: "darling, the main reason I want to marry you is you’ll give me a competitive advantage in the business world").


4. Steven Covey, Jr., in an interview on branding, says

trust is a hard-edged, economic driver—a learnable and measurable skill that can give your business a competitive edge.

Covey doesn’t say the sole goal of trust is to provide a competitive edge; still, why does that phraseology come so easily to us? (And not just to Covey—I’ve said much the same myself on occasion).


5. From a Harvard Business School Publishing email advertising a seminar titled “Authenticity: Are you Delivering what Consumers Want?”

…your company must grasp, manage, and excel at rendering authenticity. Learn how to manage customers’ perception of authenticity by…

• Recognizing how businesses "fake it”
• Appealing to the five different genres of authenticity
• Charting how to be "true to self" and what you say you are
• Crafting and implementing business strategies for rendering authenticity

What does “manage customers’ perception of authenticity” mean? Is it the same as “be authentic?” And if not—isn’t it then inauthentic?

Is authenticity best “rendered” by “crafting and implementing business strategies?” Is authenticity-as-strategy the same as authenticity-as-values?

This is not just about a clash of values—the greedy vs. the needy. It’s deeper. It’s about two world-views of business.

One—the dominant ideology of the 19th and 20th centuries—says business is a Hobbesian place. The dominant relationship is competition—everyone against everyone, including you vs. your suppliers and your customers. The goal is to win, defined as sustainable competitive advantage, and measured by shareholder return on equity.

In this worldview, the role of relationships is as means to an end—winning.

In the other worldview, business is about interdependencies, linkages, networks. The dominant relationship is commercial collaboration. Those who prosper are those who play well with others.

By this worldview, relationships aren’t means to an end—relationships are the end. Successful businesses are the consequences, outcomes, byproducts of successful relationships.

The world is dragging us toward collaboration; but our belief systems are still rooted in competition.

The result shows in our language. We know the right words to say, but we can’t help sounding like Eddie Haskell, trying to fake sincerity.

After all, if your sole goal is to win, how can “relationships” possibly be sincere?