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Do You Trust a Robot? To Do What?

Do you trust a robot?

Well, you might say, it depends: that depends on who did the programming. 

We do use the word ‘trust’ that way. We can ‘trust’ a robot to do the same thing, over and over. It doesn’t have bad motives, bad days, or bad blood. It does what it’s programmed to do.

But we would never say we’d trust a robot to “do the right thing,” or to “keep its owner’s best interest at heart,” or to “have a conscience.” That would just be silly. A robot is a machine. And silicon is not protein.

Yet much thinking about social trust amounts to nothing more than programming the robot. Got problems on Wall Street? Tweak the incentives. Oil drillers behaving badly? Rewrite the programmer rules of the MMS.

Much of that’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. What’s to be done about all the non-robotic parts of society?

Sister Rettinger Uses Non-robotic Trust to Shame a Thief into Restitution

Writing programs for robotic trust is pretty simple. Go read one of the economists or psychologists who boil down all human behavior to the consistent pursuit of self-interest, and borrow their formula. Define a few processes, insert rules and conditional reward/pain payoffs, and voila—robotic trust.

But that won’t explain Pittsburgh’s Sister Lynn Rettinger: or the thief she undid with her voice:

Rettinger didn’t even have to break out a ruler for man who reached into an open window and stole a wallet from a car on Tuesday. She just needed the voice honed by nearly 50 years in Catholic schools.

After a teacher saw the man swipe the wallet, the 5-foot-3 principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School in the Shadyside neighborhood went outside and firmly told the man, "you need to give me what you have."

The unknown thief turned over the wallet, apologized and walked away.

Rettinger says she merely said what she says to students when she knows they have something they shouldn’t.

Let’s be clear: the Sister called out a stranger for misbehavior: and he responded. While strangers, they shared a moral code. While he was a lawbreaker and she just a little old woman, she trusted that he would not harm her, and that he would do the right thing.   And so he did.

The rules of interpersonal conduct—or morality, or trust, or conscience—are often considered to be far ‘softer’ than the rules governing physics, or programs governing robots. But Sr. Rettinger had enough confidence to calmly place a bet on their power. And she was right.

There is a power that exists between human beings, a binding web of mutuality, that we have systematically denied—to our own detriment.

5th Pillar in India Challenges Bribe-takers to Cease their Demands

Vijay Anand, chairman of 5th Pillar, has printed up over a million zero-rupee notes. The notes are to be given by poor people to officials who try to extort them for basic services.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

When engineered properly, the power of the force that binds people to each other can overwhelm the selfish power that economists presume drives us all.

Selfishness Is Over-rated: Trust is Under-Rated

I’m getting tired of hearing it cited routinely, over and over, as if it were self-evident, that people are selfish and will behave badly unless stopped or otherwise incented, especially if they work for companies.

They are not. People are vastly flawed and far from perfection; but they are also selfless and capable of great acts of generosity.

Dr. Robert Hoyk lists a number of ways we can think about increasing trust, many of which don’t involve behaviors and incentives. David Gebler suggests that culture drives trust , which seems perfectly obvious when you just put it that way. Then we catch wind of a headline and we’re off to the behavioral sanctions route once again.

Programming the robot; what does it get you? The same thing, over and over.   There’s a lot to like about dependability and reliability. Just don’t claim that’s all there is to trust.

What Reality TV Can Teach Us About Trust: You’re Cut Off

As we’ve been hearing endlessly, various measures of trust have been declining for some years now. If and when the tide turns—what will we notice first? Here’s an interesting possibility: a shift in the tone of reality TV.

I am not a fan of reality TV shows. Most appeal to low-grade prurient interest (think Jersey Shore as an incestuous offspring of Jerry Springer). Others—Survivor being the prototype—just feature winning-at-all-costs competition.

I confess to having instantly liked two, however. One was American Idol, and I can explain why in two words: Simon Cowell. Not because he was snarky, but because he was the truth-teller, the voice of standards and quality and reality that everyone else wished they could wish away, but that ultimately ruled.

And, I was fascinated by the first year of The Apprentice. Then bored to tears by year two. I still have no idea why, but suspect Omarosa had something to do with it.

Well, here’s number three. I stumbled (honest!) upon a new VHS1 show called You’re Cut Off, and I’ll go out on a limb and make two predictions: first, this one’s going to be a hit. Second, it might be a harbinger of better times for trust.

Episode 1: Revenge of the Have-Nots

9 of the United States’ most selfish, preening, snobby, self-obsessed, narcissistic 20-something women are brought to Hollywood under false pretenses: that they’ll participate in a reality TV show called The Good Life. In a brilliantly contrived bit of theater, they are all filmed in a Rodeo Drive type luxury store simultaneously having their credit cards refused, and being sent to customer services.

Once gathered in customer services, they are informed that this is an intervention. The host of the show, a professional life coach, shows them video clips of their parents, husbands, and other enablers (none of these ladies are self-supporting) telling them, “It’s over, dear, you’re on your own; I hear Mickey D’s is hiring, you should go apply—because you’re cut off.” The looks on their faces are low-rent, bottom-feeding reality TV show at its best/worst, and you can’t help gloating over the public face-slapping these women have received.

But the ignominy is just beginning, as they’re driven away in vans (“a van? Do people actually drive in these? Where’s my limo?”) to a suburban house (“OMG, we’re in the ghetto…not even my housekeeper lives like this…”), where they proceed to descend even deeper by attacking each other.

At episode’s end, the life coach tells them the deal: they are to lose their evil ways, or they may lose their families for good. Even in episode 1, you can see the glimmer of insight in two pairs of eyes; and the power of continued denial in several more.

Episodes to Come: Redemption

The show is nicknamed “princess rehab,” and it’s apt. This is where I think the producers showed genius. There are only a few possible endings. The best ending is actually the most likely; that most of these basket cases achieve some level of self-realization and become at least willing to try to turn their lives around. 

Using an actual rehab, I suspect, wouldn’t work. Filming real interventions and real rehabs would require watching drug addicts and alcoholics, who would appear largely unsympathetic to a TV audience. But neither could we easily hate real addicts and alcoholics; the stories are too tragic and too real. And real world recidivism rates are depressingly high. It just wouldn’t work as TV.

Enter princess rehab: problem solved. We have no problem hating the self-absorbed, parodies of materialistic abuse that these ladies represent. And I suspect we will be drawn to a tale of a true convert. Any of the 9 who undergoes a Saul on the road to Damascus realization—or even shows big hints of getting it—will probably be welcomed by all of us.

As they (hopefully) renounce their wicked ways and tearfully join humanity, we will gladly accept them back, for they will have endorsed basic American values of self-reliance and humility. We’ll love them for having become just like us (or, more properly, just like what we like to think others think of us as being).

The show is set up to be about redemption; which makes it unlike any other I can think of (Biggest Loser seems tinged with self- and other-pity that I hope this show can avoid). What would it mean to have a reality TV show that is not about winning, beating others, outdoing each other in performing disgusting acts, forming backstabbing alliances, or faking love? That instead, is about redemption?

Lessons for Trust

I don’t think we’d have seen this show a few years ago. The mood of the country is cynical, mistrustful, especially about the rich and powerful, and these 9 young ladies will do very well as proxy lightning rods for the venting.

But the show is not set up to stop at revenge. Unlike all the others (including Biggest Loser) this one has the potential to be win-win-win. If most of the ladies learn to not take others for granted, to clean up their own kitchens, pick up after their dog, and think occasionally about the needs of others—well, there is no loser in that.  They all win. Society wins. 

And trust would win. The biggest destroyer of trust is extreme self-orientation.  These ladies exhibit that in spades at the outset. I suspect we’ll all be watching: first, to leer at the train-wreck of their lives; later, to see if they can redeem themselves.

Trust on the Toll Road

A good friend of mine, Bob, recently lost his mother.  Following the funeral, disheveled and still in mourning he took to the road to return to Boston.  Approaching the tolls at the New York Thruway, he tried to slow down and discovered he had no brakes. 

In the split second Bob had to choose what to do, he examined his options.  Hit the cement barrier and risk getting hit from behind or go through the toll and hope the car in front of him was moving away thereby minimizing the risk of injuring someone.  He decided to put the car in park–which only slowed the car a little–and go through the toll. 

Unfortunately the car in front didn’t move away.  Luckily no one was hurt. 

When the police officer showed up, he too had a choice.  He had to determine whether it was, in fact, an accident and that Bob was telling the truth about his brakes failing, or if he was simply telling a tale to get out of a ticket by swaying responsibility. 

The officer chose a third option–he assumed Bob was trying to avoid the $1.25 toll.  What made this officer ignore the more likely choices and go for dishonesty of the third kind?  Was it Bob’s disheveled look?  Did he sound drunk? 

I can understand if the officer thought Bob was lying to avoid a ticket. He’s probably seen many people run through tolls.  What baffles me is why he would think Bob would run a toll when there was a car at the toll booth.   What made him select the most improbable scenario?

The implications for trust are profound.   We can influence our own trustworthiness by reducing our self-orientation, and increasing our credibility, reliability and intimacy. 

Yet those factors don’t operate in a rational vacuum when we consider whether to trust others.   Our upbringing, general experience, specific experiences, psychological makeup and even job responsibilities go into the mix. 

Put yourself in the shoes of the police officer.  Perhaps something similar happened in the past.  Maybe he’s heard so many excuses, that everything sounds like a variation on the theme.  Maybe he was just having a difficult day. 

Maybe he trusted someone’s story that turned out to be a lie once too often.  We want to be trusted, and we would like ourselves and others to be trusting.  We have to recognize when our own issues get in the way of trusting others.  And hope that our own hard work to be trustworthy will be enough for others to trust us. 

What happened to Bob?  The tow truck driver confirmed that the brakes failed.  

And the officer made my friend pay the toll, just in case.

How v. Why, and Why Not?

The May issue of the Center For Creative Leadership’s  e-newsletter features a short blurb on a new book by journalist and author Brian Carney. The book is called Freedom, Inc. and the article begins this way:

"We trust people to be adults in so many areas of their lives. But when they walk through the doors at work, we insist they need detailed rules and descriptions for how to do a job."

Carney has explored “the hidden cost of how” – the ways in which top-down, command-and-control companies don’t see opportunities, miss deadlines, and lose customers by employing detailed rules and prescribing exact procedures rather than trusting their employees to get the job done. At best, he argues, the culture of “how” leads to codification of inefficiency; at worst to disengaged and disgruntled employees.

One of the companies he studied was FAVI, a French manufacturer of a specific auto part. Jean-Francois Zobrist, the CEO of FAVI, makes the distinction between “Comment?” companies, or how companies in  French, and “Pourquois?” companies, the companies which ask their employees simply to understand why they do their jobs. Why companies relinquish control, ask their employees to do their work to meet the goal rather than the standards manual, and allow the freedom for innovation at every level.

Zobrist also argues that the culture of how encourages companies to measure all the wrong things: is the employee on time? did she produce up to standard?, rather than the only thing which matters: is the job well done, and is the customer happy?

This simple idea of moving from how to why companies seems so right to me that I wish I were the author. It seems so modern. It fits the model of the move to service industries (v. manufacturing, though we have seen that it works there as well) and of millennial employees (v. “ company men.”) It’s also another way of understanding what a trusted-based company looks like.

Let’s go a step farther, and take why companies – where each employee understands the mission and why she does her job – to why not companies, and ask everyone to question why not do things in a new way? No one knows the job better than the person who’s doing it every day, so let’s tear down those pseudo-inspirational posters of eagles and oceans extolling EFFORT and TEAMWORK, and instead ask in big letters WHY? And WHY NOT? Why am I doing this in the first place, and why not try it a new way?

A Trust Bubble?

I read a blogpost about capital ratios entitled The Mystery of Capital.  A commenter to that post introduced an intuitively appealing term I hadn’t heard before: the “trust bubble,” as in

“what has popped is not really the housing bubble, nor even the credit bubble, but the trust bubble. And as always when a bubble bursts, we all rush to the opposite extreme. Now, no one trusts anyone else, economically or politically, and no society can function without trust.”

Credit for the line goes to commenter jrw, whose real name I can’t deduce from the un-hyperlinked initials. It’s an intuitively appealing turn of phrase, and I wasn’t the only one who found it a grabber.

But like so many things trust-related, it doesn’t bear up under examination. A bubble is when things inflate—we have a bubble in tulips, or in gold, or in tech stocks. They get over-valued, then the bubble breaks.

So—did trust get vastly overdone? Was trust over-rated, before it took a crash? Listen closely, and you can be forgiven for being confused; that is language crafted to obfuscate, not to clarify.

Another such grabber line is “trust but verify.” Like light beer, it sounds great–but has less meaning. Let me explain.

Deconstructing Trust

Let’s think very simply about how we use the word ‘trust’ in its most concrete sense. I trust you; or I don’t. You are trustworthy; or you’re not. If I (trust you), and you are (trustworthy), then the result is—trust.

In the above sentence, “I trust” is a verb, "trustworthy" is an adjective, and the resulting “trust” is a noun. Trust is a result, an outcome: it’s not a thing in and of itself.

Yet we have all manners of surveys purporting to measure ‘trust.’ What is it they’re actually measuring? In long run social surveys, ‘trust’ is often used to indicate people’s propensity to trust, i.e. the verb meaning from above.

But in other surveys, for example when we say “trust in Goldman Sachs is down,” do we mean that people are less trusting? Or do we mean that Goldman Sachs is less trustworthy? All we know from “trust in Goldman is down” is the end result.

Identifying the Real Trust Problem

You can’t create good social policy without knowing whether the problem lies with the trustor, or the trustee. Do we have a trust-ing problem? Or a trustworthiness problem?

Professor Roderick Kramer of Stanford doesn’t necessarily state that the problem lies in trust-ing, but that’s where he focuses on for solutions. Consumers can best protect themselves by practicing ‘tempered trust.’

That doesn’t mean he thinks Bernie Madoff is blameless, of course. But if one’s attention tends to be placed on what Madoff’s victims could have been done differently, it tends to draw attention away from Madoff’s assault on trustworthiness. Regardless of Kramer’s intent, the perhaps unintended effect is like what the mortgage brokers’ and credit card industries have said—the solution to abuse is better consumer education.

I want to say to those industries (please imagine here a full Lewis Black rant ‘n rage tone), “No It’s NOT! The solution to abuse is—to stop the abusers! Not to better educate the abused!”

While business surveys often fail to distinguish between ‘trust’ and ‘trusting,’ there are social trends scholars who are extremely precise about their measurements of trust, and about what trust means. A great example is Dr. Eric Uslaner, of the University of Maryland.

When Uslaner says trust is down (and he does), he means long-term propensity to trust, or what I’m calling trusting-ness.  Long-term as in decades and generations. And propensity as in do you tend to leave the door unlocked, do you impute bad motives to strangers. It’s a lot more psychological, broad, and deep-based than a temperature-taking about a specific institution or person compared to the same question a few months prior.

Again: what is it we think we’re measuring when we purport to measure trust?  It makes a difference.

Ronald Reagan Had It Wrong

He may have had it wrong many ways, but here I’m just talking about when he said, “trust, but verify.” Like the “trust bubble,” it sounds great. But in fact it plays on another ambiguity about trust. This ambiguity comes from the relationship between trust and risk.

If you think about it for a moment, there is no trust without risk. If there weren’t risk, we wouldn’t call it trust, we’d call it “probabilistic decision-making.” Bluntly put, if you have to verify, it ain’t trust.

There is one component of trust that is an exception to that statement—the idea of ‘reliability,’ as in ‘I can trust that pipeline won’t blow’—in which trust very much is linked to verification. But it’s the mechanical sense of trust; it has to do with engineering, physics, the behavior of impersonal forces. In all the other senses of trust—which touch on ideas like intentions, deception and transparency, and vulnerability—verification has precious little to do with it. Reagan was just speechifying.

Finally, there’s the comment that started this blogpost. Was there a bubble in trust? In trusting? Or in trustworthiness?

There certainly was not a trustworthiness bubble: quite the contrary—trustworthiness was declining with every level of derivative abstraction.

Nor does it seem to me there was a ‘trusting’ bubble. I don’t think people’s propensity to trust financial institutions was increasing at the same time general social trust was steadily declining.

And if both trustworthiness and trusting-ness were undergoing declines,then–how could there have been a "bubble of trust?"

The vocabulary of trust is seductive, but the meaning of trust is slippery. Be careful to think simply and clearly when it comes to broad generalizations about trust.  Bad stuff went down; it’s critical we think clearly about what is to be done.

Old Faithful and Reliability

Old Faithful is a geyser located in Yellowstone National Park, USA. It gets its name because it regularly shoots steam and water to great heights. In fact, with a margin of error of 10 minutes, Old Faithful will erupt either every 65 or every 91 minutes, depending on the length of the previous eruption. It’s been doing this since 1870.

While most of us who endeavor to be Trusted Advisors would probably prefer not to be associated with a “geyser” (myself included), there’s something we can all learn from this phenomenon of nature.

Reliability: The Good News/Bad News

Of the 12,000+ people who have completed our online Trust Quotient™ survey to date, Reliability comes out 16 percentage points higher than any of the other three elements of the Trust Equation. This isn’t really surprising, given that Reliability is the easiest to grasp and execute. Reliability is logical, concrete, and action-oriented.

The bad news is we’re not as good as we think.

Case in point: I’m always interested to see how participants in our programs handle the pre-work assignment we send via email a couple of weeks before the program begins. Responses are due to be emailed back within a week. It takes 10 – 20 minutes to complete the work. People generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Turn it in late with no acknowledgement (slightly more than half)
  • Never turn it in (some)
  • Turn it in on time (very few)

So while Reliability seems like a “slam dunk” in the world of trustworthiness, there’s room for us all to improve. (And by the way, I am no exception, witness how I’ve been doing lately on my goal of writing one blog post per week.)

The Road to Being More Reliably Reliable

Generally, people experience you as reliable when:

  •  You feel familiar to them. They’re at ease with you. They have a good sense of who you are and feel they know you. You use their terminology and templates. You establish routines in your relationships (regular meetings, emails, etc.). You dress appropriately.
  • You are consistent and predictable. People know what to expect from you, and they get it. You set expectations up front and report on them regularly. You are rigorous about using good business practices, such as meeting agenda and notes. You make lots of small promises and consistently follow through. They can count on you to be the same person at all times, and the same to all people.
  • You work to make sure there are no surprises when you’re around. You use others’ vocabulary and respect and reflect their norms and environment. You make sure that their expectations of you are consistent. You produce documentation of consistent quality and create deliverables with a consistent look and feel.
  • You do what you say you will do. You keep and deliver on your promises, and see keeping your word as a matter of personal integrity. When you are unable to fulfill on a promise, you immediately get in communication to acknowledge the impact and reset expectations.

Reliability is Reliability is Reliability

Here’s the rub: Consistency matters. If you apply these best practices more with your clients and less with, say, your Trusted Advisor instructor … then your reliability score suffers.

Perfection is not the goal here; impeccability is (See Impeccability vs. Perfection: Who’s Got Your Back?). There’s always room for error and for our humanity. When it comes to trust, what matters is being rigorously self-aware, transparent about our strengths and weaknesses, and willing to hold ourselves to higher and higher standards of execution.

Writing this post was one action I chose to boost my own Reliability today. What’s yours?

Five Good Reasons to Trust a Crone

Remember the crone, the multi-faceted older woman from fairy tales, the archetype from modern psychology? She’s the old woman, often ugly, sometimes malicious, and always possessing magical powers due to her proximity to the next world. In Robert Graves’s writings  she is the third side of the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.

Her role is to give the enchanted maiden or the hero on his journey – the child of destiny – the magical amulet or golden apple to take them to the next stages of their quest. In her benign form, she’s the fairy godmother.

Data from the Trust Quotient 10,000 Survey

Be cautious of whiplash as we move from fairy tales to hard data here.

Trusted Advisor Associates has gotten more than 12,000 responses to the Trust Quotient Self Assessment Quiz. At the 10,000 point, about four months ago, we performed some serious analyses of what we had learned to date.

Some of the material was covered in Trust and the Standard Deviation. Another finding suggests that in fact you should trust the crone, and the old man too. The strongest correlation in our study shows that as we age, we become more trustworthy. 


Since this data is self-reported, it got me wondering what’s behind it. My first guess was that we become less self-absorbed as we get older, and our Self-orientation scores improve as we move away from Self-orientation and towards Other-orientation.

I was wrong. We actually improve on all four scores (Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and lower Self-orientation) as we age, and this holds true for men and women. Which begs the question: is everyone collectively kidding themselves? Or can we actually trust people more as they age? I believe the latter.

Five Good Reasons our Trustworthiness Goes Up With Age

Here are five reasons you should trust a crone, even though we are “sometimes malicious.” (The same probably goes for older men too, but I’ll stick with what I know.)

  1. We have nothing to prove. We’ve proven all that we need to in our lives, and we’re proud of it. We have every reason to tell the truth, and more of it. We’re not competing.
  2. We have greater capacity for intimacy (as defined by the Trust Equation) and fewer secrets to protect. Nothing embarrasses us.
  3. Our role is to help heroes and maidens on your journeys. We’re concerned about, but not invested in, the outcome.
  4. We have supernatural or magical powers, or at least very high wisdom, which makes us credible.
  5. And – trust me on this – even when we’re malicious it’s for your own good!

Do You Trust the Taxi-Driver? Or Not?

I spent last week in Denmark, 40 miles outside of Copenhagen. While nearly every Dane speaks near-perfect English, I of course stand out as an American.

I took a taxi from a resort hotel venue to the local train station. The fare was 70 kroner (about 15 dollars). I gave the driver a 200-kroner note. He gave me back 30 kroner change.

So here’s the question: If it were you in that situation, what would you instantly assume about what is going on?

Trusting vs. Being Trustworthy

Much of what we usually talk about on Trust Matters is trustworthiness, as opposed to trusting. They are not the same thing; in fact they are quite distinct.

The ability to trust strangers (as will be described in this week’s Trust Quotes interview with Eric Uslaner—tune in Wednesday) is instilled in us when we were young, and does not change easily. Trustworthiness, on the other hand, feels less risky and is more teachable.

The taxi driver incident is about trusting, not trustworthiness: and it offers a quick litmus test of your propensity to trust. Which do you instinctively assume:

  1. You assume that obviously the taxi-driver made a mental slip, thinking you had given him a 100-kroner note, rather than a 200-kroner note. It is early in the morning, perhaps he hasn’t had his coffee. You politely point out you had given him 200.
  2. You momentarily think, “What is going on here? Why did he do that?” and then just as quickly assume he probably just had a momentarily lapse. Since the 200-kroner note is still in his hand, you are comfortable pointing at it and smiling, so that he will notice his error.
  3. You are mildly annoyed: you think, “He can’t be pulling this move, can he?” You quickly realize, however, there is no risk here; you simply point out the 200-kroner note still in his hand, somewhat clumsily sitting on his lap. “I gave you 200,” you firmly point out, realizing also he had plausible deniability—if pressed, he’d almost certainly insist it was an honest mistake.
  4. Adrenaline rises in you instantly: you think, “What do you take me for, some naïve foreigner you can hustle? No way, Jose, are you getting away with this crap—not with me, you don’t.” You point directly at his hand, still guiltily holding on the to the 200-note, and say grimly with clenched teeth, “You’re short, buddy; give me the other 100, and you can forget about a tip.”

There is no right or wrong answer here, there are simply degrees of propensity to trust. Whether your answer is ‘smart’ is also situational; you may answer differently in rural Denmark at 9AM than you would in downtown Hamburg or Detroit at 2AM (and if not, you’re naïve).

Given that, if your answer is:

  1. You are very trusting, more so than the average person in the world. Depending on the situation, you may be too trusting, in fact, for your own good.
  2. You make a distinct choice to note your suspicions, but to act as if you do not have them; people read you as responding from trust, though you haven’t given up your objectivity about risk.
  3. You’re a bit suspicious. While most would not take offense at your response, neither are you likely to take advantage of some opportunities presented in life. Your basic response to life is one of caution.
  4. You believe you don’t have much control over your life, and that others know it and are out to get you before you get them. You expect little of others, and are rarely disappointed.

The interesting thing about trusting-ness is that it is catching. The way you behave toward others influences the way they respond back to you.

Whether you expect the worst of people, or the best of people, you’ll pretty much be right.

Act accordingly.

Robert Porter Lynch on Trust, Innovation and Performance (Trust Quotes #2)

Robert Porter Lynch may be one of the best trust thinkers you haven’t heard of.  A long-time thought leader in strategic alliances, he has written several books on collaboration and innovation. He quotes Robert Frost, has studied how the Greeks created trust, and counter-balances Machiavelli. He is equally at home with high tech companies and with laborers in the trenches.

He’s currently working with Paul R. Lawrence (Professor Emeritus, Organization Behavior at Harvard Business School) on Lawrence’s new book: Driven to Lead, and his own book: Leadership and the Architecture of Trust (to be published)

Excerpts from our Interview:

CHG: Welcome to the Trust Quotes series, Robert. You cover a range of trust-related topics, but let’s start with one. You talk about the strong link between trust and innovation. Can you explain that link to us?

RPL: Absolutely. All innovation comes from people who think differently — that is, one perspective meets another, and something new can be born. If two people in the same room think alike, one is unnecessary when it comes to innovation,. The eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension between opposites.

But two differing perspectives don’t automatically create something new, and all too often the differences become destructive: like Republicans vs. Democrats, old vs. new, my way or the highway.

So the art becomes: how can you increase the creative aspect of interactions between opposites? And the answer is trust. When this tension exists in a trusting environment, people’s creative juices are aligned, and they become jointly innovative, thus trust is an alignment of human energy. This aligned energy is also referred to as synergy – something that is so often elusive in organizations and relationships.

CHG: That’s fascinating. Earlier in this series, Ross Smith of Microsoft said very much the same thing. Are you two in cahoots?

RPL: Nope, never heard of him, but that’s how memes work. That and he’s obviously an insightful man!

The Trust-Innovation Link

CHG: Well, how does creating greater trust enable greater innovation?

RPL: Turns out that’s a great question. Let me re-tweak it a bit, if I may. The question is: how can teams act at the highest level of performance? And the reason I phrase it that way is that there’s solid evidence to show that the highest team performance comes from trust. So high performance teams ought to know something about trust.
CHG: Where did you look, and what did you find?

RPL: I spent 2 years looking over the worst-to-first instances in sports: such as Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of 1960 going from the bottom of the league to the Superbowl, or Pat Riley taking the L.A. Lakers to the NBA championship, or the most exciting of them all — arguably the greatest worst-to- first performance of all time, the 1980 American hockey team that won Olympic Gold against all odds, culminating in a win over the monstrously dominant Russian team.

One thing people forget is that Coach Ross Brooks — a man who had himself had been turned down from an earlier Olympic team — turned down a player who himself had more talent and better credentials than probably any other player on the team.

Why would a coach refuse a superior player as you’re heading into the Olympics? Well, the player was asked to practice with the team, and the team confronted the coach unanimously, saying ‘you can’t hire him.’

‘Why not?’ asked the coach.

“Because he doesn’t give 100%,” the team said.

“But he’s more talented than anyone else, even at less-than-full effort, he’s arguably the best player on the ice,” the coach protested.”

“But coach,” the players said, “if you never know what effort he’s going to give, you can’t trust what he’ll do. You never know how much game he’s bringing. You cannot depend on him to be reliable.  He wasn’t a collaborative kind of guy, he’d rather try to score himself than pass the puck to someone better positioned.”

That’s why in hockey they still call Wayne Gretzky the “Great One:” because he not only scored more goals than any other player, he also had more assists – he was the ultimate team player.

And it is this sense that permeates all great teams. They trust each other; they trust each other to give the utmost to the team. Which means, everyone can rely on everyone else’s motives, and everyone can trust the results. Unqualified commitment by each member of the team drives trust, and trust enables high performance.

That’s the link.

CHG: I get it. So, where are some lessons for business?

RPL: Well, you’d think way more businesses would grasp the obvious economics of collaborating — cross functional teams, innovative supply chains, alliances and joint ventures, for example. But very few companies do them right—because they don’t trust, because they don’t know how trust is created or destroyed.

CHG: How does that play out?

RPL: Todd Welch and I researched this; and the one thing we found was that unless there is trust at the top of the organization, collaborations don’t work. When trust is lacking, legal agreements are erroneously expected to fill the gap. And, of course, the longer the legal agreement, the stronger the distrust, because nearly all legal agreements actually generate more distrust, exacerbating fears and thus making it less likely the venture would succeed. You could make book on it.

CHG: You told me a story of a client who does major huge deals on a handshake basis. What’s the real story behind that one?

RPL: That is the real story. The only thing surprising is that the rest of us consider it surprising. The company is Daymon Worldwide, which provides private label brands to the grocery industry. I’ve seen Du Pont and Merck put a billion-dollar joint venture together on a handshake, and the legal agreements followed a year later. I witnessed Fleet bank enter a multi-million construction of their headquarters on a handshake with Gilbane Construction company. Handshake deals are far more common than many think.

CHG: You have developed a couple of models for thinking about trust; can you tell us briefly about them?

RPL: One of the primary reasons trust has been an elusive mystery is because we have either ambiguous or complicated understanding about why humans act the way they do. Recently Paul Lawrence has cracked the code on human behavior and provided a very elegant way of explaining what others have made so convoluted. Anyone from senior execs to high-school students grasps it in about five minutes: Here’s a brief explanation.

Trust and Ethics

CHG: What’s your view of the connection between trust and ethics? And what’s the state of ethics in business these days?

RPL: It goes without saying that ethics are in an abominable state of affairs, but I’m not sure that’s really different. Washington is better now than it was in the 1870’s, and business is probably no worse than it’s ever been. That’s an empty compliment because poor trust is very, very expensive. The biggest problem with ethics is the illusion we all have that good ethics would cure the problems of distrust.

Ethics actually creates a dilemma for building trust. While the lack of ethics will definitely destroy trust, the presence of ethics may only bring trust to a neutral point. Good ethics implies “I won’t do something wrong;” it takes the fear out of the picture. But it doesn’t mean “I’ll be effective,” nor “use sound judgment,” nor “be collaborative,” nor “compassionate,” nor “spontaneous.” Other things are necessary.

We all know ethical people who are ornery, dispassionate, inconsiderate, self-righteous, or uncooperative; thus while “trustworthy,” they are still not able to generate a trusting relationship. Trust embraces far more than ethics.

Real trust comes from people who are willing to be highly cooperative as well as ethical. Trust manifests when three things are boldly present: good character, good competence, and good collaboration. When we see great trust, we see people who know that their self-interest must always be put into a bigger picture: what’s in the mutual interest of the relationship itself.

Just yesterday I was asked to help rebuild a relationship between two business partners where the trust had broken down. The older of the two partners said it so well:

“For me at this stage of my life, I find it very difficult to separate friendship from business. The qualities of a great friend are quite similar to those of a great partner. Frankly, I don’t know where the dividing line is any more. The qualities of trust, integrity, mutuality, loyalty, and commitment to a larger mission are inherent in both a friendship and business partnership. As we embark on the threshold of a noble destiny together, I want these qualities to be present between us. In fact, this is more than a “want,” it is an “essential ingredient.”


This is the second installment of Trust Quotes, our new series featuring interviews with leading thinkers and practitioners in the world of trust: people who apply trust in powerful ways in business and society.

Previous Issues:

Trust Quotes #1: Ross Smith of Microsoft on trust and innovation

What a Trust-based Company Looks Like

The tone of this blog is frequently critical. That’s probably because I believe we all learn much better from negative examples than from positive.
But if you don’t have any positive examples with which to contrast, we can easily forget why negative is negative. So the occasional positive blogpost is especially important. And this one is a real upper.

PSA: Pediatric Services of America

Last week I had the privilege of working with a very fine small company, PSA Healthcare. They deliver home health care for medically fragile people, mostly children. They have about 3,500 private duty nurses, operating from 50 locations in 17 states. What they do can make an enormous difference to families, allowing them to lead normalized lives under difficult conditions.

But having a great mission alone doesn’t make for a fine company. A lot of what makes PSA fine is that they are intentionally and consciously using trust principles to run the business. They are not only making a lot of people very happy and proud, they are doing very well by classic business measures. A fine case of doing well by doing good.

Let’s start with the metrics, go on to the principles, and end up with the real punch lines.

The Numbers. Jim McCurry started as CEO a little over a year ago, when PSA had been declining in revenue, market share, and profitability. Previous management was a classic top-down, measure-by-the-numbers team that had, simply put, failed.

The old style was that each month the bottom-performing offices were required to ‘justify’ themselves on a conference call to the top management. At the annual meeting, office heads were required to double-up on hotel rooms. Orders were given, decisions had to be approved up the line, and the style was management by FIN—fear, intimidation and numbers.

By the end of McCurry’s first year—at the tail end of a recession—revenue steadily increased, reaching a 20% annual rate of growth by year-end, all of it volume-based. The company increased profitability, more than doubled total profits, and turned the market share decline into market share gain. Staff morale is up enormously. Expenses are down.

Bottom line: really solid business results.

The Principles. How did McCurry do it? It was not the classic MBA turnaround medicine of tightening up, taking control, and cutting expenses. Instead, Jim told the staff the following:

“From now on, this company is run for the customer. The office heads work for the customer, and the rest of leadership works for them. Make your own decisions, and we’ll help you make them. Don’t wait for us to tell you what to do, you figure out what to do and do it—we trust you. No more intimidation, no more review boards.

“Our new mission has three parts: Action-oriented, Care-giving, and Trust-based.” (It spells ACT: coincidence? Of course not).

The annual meeting I was privileged to be part of was full of hokey-yet-fun skits, honesty, mutual helping, and positive energy.

The Punch Lines.  McCurry is an MBA. A Harvard MBA, actually, from a year after Dubya’s vintage.

The company’s owners are two private equity firms; the head of one of these is dedicated to the business in large part because his mother had been born so prematurely that she likely would have died were it not for the in-home nursing care she received in the first weeks of life.

This is a profitable business, not a charity. It is being run like a real business; like a real business ought to be, I should say, because too many businesses are being run the way PSA used to be run.

It’s refreshing to see an example of the much maligned du jour—MBAs and private equity—using modern, “squishy” leadership and management principles to improve life and the bottom line in parallel.

Collaboration, ethics, trust, openness, honesty, integrity—these are not fuzzy phrases, uttered by bureaucrats, wealthy Hollywood stars, or mega-rich Googlish do-gooders. These are utterly workable principles that deliver the best results around. They give capitalism a good name. Collaborative capitalism, I like to call it.

McCurry and PSA Healthcare deserve their success.