Tackling Trust in the Tech Sector

(I’m attending #CODECON this week). Trust in digital technology is a nascent hot issue. The headlines are a target-rich environment for emerging trust issues: from GDPR to autonomous vehicles to fake news to ad tech to AI to cyber-hacking. Tech leadership is scrambling to stay out in front of the EEC, the Justice Department, and – most of all – public opinion.

Trust is not yet the crippling threat that we see in financials or pharmaceuticals; brands are still strong, the sector is relatively regulation-free, and money is being minted. But the clouds are on the horizon.  According to Edelman PR, “Trust in technology is showing precipitous decline.”  Smart leaders know not to ignore the canaries in the mine.

The usual solutions are – to be kind – all over the map. They include governance, “best practices,” re-skilling, communications efforts, transparency initiatives, compliance programs, and mission statements.

If you feel these “solutions” are all vaguely unsatisfying – you’re right. What they all lack is a fundamental understanding of the basics of corporate trust, as applied to tech.

At the root of it all: people trust people more than organizations.

Trust – the Basics

Consider three basic, commonsensical tenets of trust:

  • Trust is a dynamic relationship between trustor and trustee;
  • Trust is created when a trustor takes a risk, to which the trustee responds (or doesn’t), creating higher levels of trust (or not);
  • The strongest trust is between persons; trust in organizations by contrast is pale, or ‘thin.’

Here are a few counter-intuitive corollaries of those basic principles:

  1. Working directly on the perception of corporate trust – through PR, advertising, reputation management – is pushing on a string. Corporate messaging urging you to trust the corporation is impersonal, viewed skeptically, and weak by nature;
  2. Risk mitigation doesn’t help trust, it destroys it. All trust begins by a trustor taking a risk; no risk, no trust.
  3. The best way to create a trusted organization is to create a Trust-based Organization: one in which all persons are trusting and trusted by all those they encounter, in all their interactions.

The failure of corporations to articulate coherent approaches to trust can be traced to their failure to fully appreciate that trust is primarily personal, that it requires risk, and that it is driven by employees interacting with others based on core trust values.

A positive (or negative) personal interaction with a Lyft driver does more to create (or destroy) trust than a revised TOS agreement, ad, or app feature. Ditto for an Airbnb host, a Google technical service rep, or a Salesforce account exec.  Corporate trust is created by the aggregation of personal interactions at the platform/customer interface.

Trust Basics Applied to Tech

The tech industry, like most, has a few peculiar wrinkles. For one, tech inherently deals with inanimate, impersonal ‘things,” whether that be iPhones or algorithms. It’s an uphill battle to personalize trust.

Another signature trust challenge for tech is scaling. This typically means data capture, digitization, and algorithms-cum-procedures. Trust can also scale – but through values, not algorithms. Corporate trust ultimately rests on personal trust, which rests on personally-demonstrated values:

  • Southwest Airlines’ reputation emerged unscathed from recent disasters that would have sunk United, because its demonstrated emphasis on deeply personal interactions inoculated it against the impersonal “big company” image;
  • Facebook has a great trust advantage in that its core subject is personal relationships. But it gained a reputation as being “creepier” than Google because, once hacked by fake ‘friends’, our sense of personal betrayal is far greater than for a flawed algorithm about buying preferences.

Transparency in tech is big – but often misunderstood. Transparency per se is not key – it’s how open you are about what you’re being transparent about. Ten pages of “disclosed” Terms of Service is like the small print at the end of your bank statement – more a cause for suspicion than a gesture of openness. Tech customers – like all people – will accept a wide range of behaviors as long as they feel you’re being intentionally open about them.

What is To Be Done?

The answer is simple, albeit not easy. Create a Trust-based Organization.

As noted above, that means an organization in which the cultural DNA is rooted in individual relationships, in which people know how to be trusting and trustworthy in all their personal interactions, and in which the organization supports such traits through some specific shared values.

  • Trusting. The key skill of trusting is intelligent risk-taking. This is less about risk-aversion, and more about knowing how to be personally vulnerable and emotionally connected. The skills of empathy, listening and transparency are, to paint with a broad brush, not widely practiced in tech – but they are as key to trust as anywhere else.
  • Trustworthiness. The Trust Equation lists the four factors of personal trustworthiness: (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation. Tech people love the equation-based formulation, but tend to focus overwhelmingly on the two ‘rational’ components of Credibility and Reliability. Yet our research shows that, in fact, the single most powerful factor driving personal trustworthiness is Intimacy. Again, not a core strength in most of tech.
  • Values. The Four Trust Principles – Collaboration, Relationships over transactions, Transparency, and Other-focus – offer a values-based beginning point for cultural transformation. There are many things an organization can do to become trust-based, but chief among them are conscious role-modeling on the part of leadership: in particular, role-modeling of the virtues of trusting and being trustworthy.

(It’s worth noting that the traditional tools of change management – metrics, KSFs, incentives – are not only not very helpful in trust, but can even be counter-productive: we don’t trust others if we think they’re incentivized to appear trustworthy just to gain personal advancement).

In sum, people don’t trust YourCo. They trust the people in YourCo, and they do so based on how those people interact with them and with all others.

If you’re serious about improving trust in your company, don’t lead with your communications department – lead with your leaders. Personally.


A Trust-based Organization: Bangor Savings Bank

In the talks I give about trust in companies, I nearly always get asked for examples of companies that do it well. And I almost never have a good answer. I can identify plenty of very trustworthy, and trusting, individuals; but I have a much harder time pointing out trust-based organizations.

What do I mean by a trust-based organization? I mean an organization that actively encourages trustworthy and trusting behavior in its employees and with its various stakeholders. 

Why are there many personal examples; but so few corporate?

Unfortunately, the reason for that is very simple.  Fear.  Very few corporate organizations in the United States these days are willing to walk the talk, to put their money where their mouth is. I’m not talking about CSR initiatives: I’m talking about entire organizations that, as an organization, believe in:

  • People who live according to the trust equation, who focus on always being credible, reliable, intimacy-safe, and with low self-orientation;
  • Interactions that are based on respect and listening before giving advice;
  • Approaching problems by being client-focused, collaborative, long-term oriented, and transparent.

I wrote earlier this year about one such possible organization, Pediatric Services of America. Now I’ve got another for you: the Bangor Savings Bank, of Bangor, Maine.

I had the privilege and the pleasure of spending most of a day with about a quarter of the bank’s employees at an annual sales event and pizza / rewards night last week. And it was a sight to see.

This, my friends, is what a trust-based organization looks like. Let me give you some verbal snapshots, some big, some little, no particular order:

  • It’s a blue jeans western-themed event; my host, EVP John Edwards, encourages me to wear my best blues, and matches me;
  • The strategic plan is drenched in trust principles: long-term, customer-experience-based, direct communication, shared cultural values;
  • The annual numbers and the new year’s goals are passed out in local offices: this event is for celebration—of people, of success, and of principles (oh yeah, bonus checks get discreetly handed out too);
  • The event features 8 video profiles of 8 employees chosen as best representing 8 key values of the firm: including customer focus, long-term values, listening, caring and acting in customers’ best interests;
  • For four years, the leadership team has been pounding home a simple message: it is about customer experience, we believe in trust, it is about people, behaviors start with attitudes. All content in the event is anchored in these themes. They really mean their catch-phrase slogan: You Matter More.
  • (It’s worth mentioning the Bank involved another great change agent a few years ago, the making-miracles-in-the-trenches bank consulting firm of St. Meyer & Hubbard; Bangor SB is a feather in their cap)
  • EVP Edwards says, "Our CEO Jim Conlon repeatedly reminds our associates and our clients that: "The only reason we exist is that the people, businesses and organizations in our markets have chosen to do business with us. If you do the right things for the right reasons, good outcomes will ensue." Hear that? He talks of outcomes as results of principled behavior–not as goals per se.
  • These are definitely Mainers, but of a special type: not afraid to emote, and not afraid to directly confront issues. I heard a story about the courage it took to say ‘no’ to a motivated and profitable borrower;
  • I heard about a borrower who walked away from a loan deposit because he changed his mind about the project; the bank, with no need to do so, refunded his deposit.
  • Want to know what long-term and community-focused means? At Bangor SB, it means “we invest in these communities because we want our children to have good jobs in this state—it’s personal.”
  • The quote that opens and closes the strategic plan: “Customer experience is the reason we are here, it is everything.”
  • Edwards says, "We have learned that defining the customer experience is an organic exercise – our culture and personality is embedded within our own colleagues and we can best learn from each other. We must constantly strive to get better as there are always ways to improve.
  • You want numbers? The bank is beating its competitors on key metrics—market share, loan losses, growth in assets.

These are people who are passionate, engaged, profitable, and making a difference in their lives and those of their communities. If I had to boil it down to one thing, it is this: the consistent application of a core set of trust principles to all the bank’s affairs.

The fascinating question it raises is: why can’t won’t other companies do this?