When Being Trustworthy Isn’t Enough to be Trusted

In sales, you sometimes hear, “They were pursuing an aggressive strategy – aggressively waiting for the phone to ring.” In other words, sometimes you’ve got to take action.

Much the same is true of trust. If you want to be trusted, sometimes it’s not enough just to be trustworthy. Sometimes you’ve got to take action. But how?

Most of my work over the past 15 years has been on trustworthiness. In The Trusted Advisor and my other books, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Trust Equation – more properly, the “Trustworthiness Equation.” The implied (and often explicit) message is, “To be trusted, be trustworthy.”

But what about when that’s not enough?  How do you take action?

To understand what action to take, I need to differentiate between trust, trusting, and being trusted.

Trust, Trusting, and Being Trusted

In all the writing and research I see done in the field of trust, rarely do I see this critical but simple distinction being made. It seems quite obvious, when you think about it. One party trusts, the other party is trusted, and the result is trust. Simple.

And yet – most trust talk obscures the differences. See if you can guess which one is being talked about in these examples:

  1.      Trust in banking is down
  2.      Banks rank low on the trust scale
  3.      People don’t automatically trust their bank anymore.

I’d suggest that probably they mean the following:

1. “Trust in banking is down” – is about trust (e.g. the level of trust that exists between banks and their clients is less than it used to be)

2. “Banks rank low on the trust scale” – is about being trusted (e.g. banks are viewed as less trustworthy than football clubs or hospitals)

3. “People don’t automatically trust their bank anymore” – is about trusting (e.g. these days people are less inclined to trust everything, including, for example, their bank).

But since they all sound pretty much alike, unless you can read the mind of the writer, you can’t be sure. And here’s why that’s important.

The Reciprocal Relationship between Trusting and Being Trusted

The creation of trust between two parties depends on a reciprocating exchange. It begins when party A takes a small risk to trust party B – A is the trustor, the one doing the trusting. Party B is the trustee, the one who is trusted. And if party B agrees to the new relationship, the result is a higher level of trust.

Take something as simple as a handshake at a networking event. Party A goes over to party B and says, “Hi Mark, I’m Charlie – I think your work on the boson participles was great, and I just wanted to meet you (extends hand).”

If party B reciprocates (e.g. “Hi Charlie, delighted to meet you, I’ve heard about you as well, how are things? (shakes hand),” then the result is trust.

If party B does not reciprocate (e.g. B looks at A’s hand, does not extend his own, gives a tight-lipped smile and turns away), then trust is not created.

The key to trust creation is reciprocity – the trustor takes a risk, and if the trustee reciprocates, trust is created. If not, trust is not created.

Therefore: the absence of trust can be caused by:

a. too little trustworthiness on the part of the trustee, or

b. too much risk aversion on the part of the trustor.

Now here’s the key: if you want to be trusted, you have two strategies you can pursue.

  1. Increase your level of perceived trustworthiness (think trust equation), or
  2. Kick-start the reciprocity relationship by first playing the role of trustor. 

You’ve heard the second strategy before. Henry Stimson often gets credit for first saying, “The best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” The same is true of making yourself more trusted – demonstrate vulnerability by offering to trust first.  The natural human reciprocal response is to return the gesture – tit for tat, good for good, bad for bad.

How often have we heard: You get out what you put in, the love you take is equal to the love you make, one good turn deserves another, whether you expect good or ill, that’s what you’ll get. They’re simple statements, but not simplistic – they’re profound.

In game theory, the simple “tit for tat” strategy is shown to beat all others. (You’ll love the link – Richard Dawkins in video with circa 1990 computers).

Using Reciprocity – Rightly 

Reciprocity is deeply wired into our psyches. You can trust it. You can use it. You can depend on it working – if, that is, you don’t abuse it.

Want your customers to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Want your colleagues to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Want your direct reports, and your report-to’s to trust you? Find some ways to trust them.

Trusting + Trusted = Trust

Trust it. It’ll work for you too.

Boston Trust

Last week, trust was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt.

At least, that’s the party line in all the media and the social buzz channels. But it’s not the whole story. The whole story is, unfortunately, not so good.

Particularized Trust and Generalized Trust

Dr. Eric Uslaner, arguably the world’s leading academic on the subject of trust, makes a key distinction between two types of trust – particularized and general. Particularized trust is experience-based trust in specific things – particular people, or institutions.

Particularized trust is what happens when we experience people to be similar to us. When a runner stopped to aid a race spectator, for example, or when the citizens of Watertown recognized that the police were on their side. This kind of trust is what we hear talked about most in the press. It’s what we mean when we say “trust takes time.” (Which it doesn’t, by the way; but that’s another story).

The other kind of trust – what Uslaner calls generalized trust, or moralistic trust – is the really powerful kind. Uslaner explains:

[Moralistic] trust doesn’t depend upon evidence or experience. It is the belief that we can trust people whom we don’t know and who may be different from ourselves. This is the sort of trust that helps societies solve key problems. It is more based upon our belief that we ought to trust people—the Golden Rule—than our experiences with people we know well and who may look and think like ourselves.

This kind of trust changes only glacially from experience. It is not “destroyed in an instant,” as particularized trust can be destroyed by an instance of betrayal. Generalized trust is gotten from our parents, even our grandparents; it’s handed down with mother’s milk.

When someone says, “You’re way too trusting, you know,” that’s the kind of generalized trust you’re not likely to change just because you get burned once.

The Powers of Trust

For all the print space given particularized trust (e.g. trust in banking is down, trust in government is down, Bostonians are wicked trustworthy), high levels of particularized trust are by no means all positive. The worse experiences people have, the more they are tempted to withdraw into tribal groups, where they experience particularized trust – trust in those who are like them, in shared opposition to those who are not. “We” are not going to let “them” stop us.  Boston Strong is a tribal cry in this sense.

But it is generalized trust that makes for powerful societies, efficient economies, flourishing nations – not the tribal bonds of particularized trust. Uslaner:

…particularized trust as a substitute for generalized trust is a negative for a group.  If a group limits its trust, it results in closed minds, cultures, and economies.

And now we can see the sad trade-off in Boston. The story wasn’t Trust Lost and then Trust Regained. It was a slight, but real, loss in moralistic, generalized trust – with a swap-out for particularized trust. Net net, it’s a loss for society.

For all the tribal celebrations and tales of individual courage and grace, the impact of a dent on generalized trust is negative. It will most likely result in pressure against immigration, not in favor of it. It will most likely result in closed borders, not open; more surveillance, not less; more suspicion, not less; and more enmity of “us” against “them.”

Building Generalized Trust

In Uslaner’s latest book – Segregation and Mistrust – he enlists massive amounts of data to show that diversity doesn’t help or hurt generalized trust – it is integration that helps it, and segregation that hurts it. And our society is becoming more, not less, segregated – in housing, in race, in income, in social groups.

The two largest drivers for greater generalized trust, he notes, are high levels of education and low levels of income inequality. It’s not looking good for either these days. Instead, we’re seeing higher levels of the wrong kind of trust – the tribal bonding of like people, trusting each other in a joint mission to make sure that the “others” don’t win.

Uslaner points out that high-generalized trusting people broadly believe two things: that the world is generally getting better, and that they have control over their own lives.

By contrast, low-generalized trusting people believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s “those others” who are conspiring to keep “us” down. It’s a society dominated by that kind of thinking that, in extremis, produces nihilistic, desperate bombers.

Talk of “Winning” against “Others” is not a good omen for the important kind of trust. The legacy of the Boston bombings will be more negative than positive.


Insecure Egomaniacs

Stern Woman BWIn April 2007, the New Yorker published an article by John Calapinto called The Interpreter. It describes Dan Everett, a linguistic researcher who lived for many years with a remote Amazonian tribe in Brazil, the Parahã.

The Parahã consider their language to be vastly superior to all others, and show no interest in learning other languages. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, nearly anything that isn’t part of their culture is completely un-interesting – planes, movies, radio. They are entirely self-absorbed, in a very profound and fundamental way.

Meanwhile, back in the “civilized” world, the field of linguistics is dominated by the theory of Noam Chomsky, which I won’t attempt to describe except to say it posits a universal characteristic of human propensity to form language. In other words, it says all languages must have this one thing (recursion) in common.

Well, surprise, surprise. The Parahã language, according to Everett, appears to be a counter-example. All attempts at demonstrating recursion fail. Chomsky would appear to be wrong.

But the Chomsky-ites are undeterred. Something must be wrong – wrong with the data, wrong with the researchers, wrong with the methodology. Because something can’t be wrong with the theory.

And so the linguistic theorists are just like the Parahã they study: convinced of the utter un-interesting-ness of the world around them – and blissfully ignorant of the irony.


Linguistics is hardly the only example of this self-centricity. We are literally born with it; our world starts off as hardly larger than our mother’s arms. Our view of astronomy was earth-centric until very recently in terms of human development.

To this day, maps of the world tend to be centered around, surprise surprise, the country they’re sold in. China was called the Middle Kingdom. Mutual funds in the US tend to be heavily weighted toward US stocks, while those in the UK are UK-weighted – yet each describes itself as global in view.

So, we think we’re the center of the universe. Let’s call that arrogance.

But arrogance has a helpmate, who often shows up at the same time and place.


We all like to be liked. The need for affiliation runs deep in our species, and not just for propagation. As far back as archaeology can inform us, we have tried to present ourselves to others in the best favorable light. Women wear makeup, men strut. So it goes.

In modern society, this reaches abstract levels. Some develop neurotic obsessions about the likelihood of their newborn offspring getting into Harvard, and nearly all of us are prey to teen-age angst – they like me, they like me not, my life is over.

Truth be told, very few of us ever achieve complete escape velocity from this insecurity. We still channel our inner teen-ager with depressing regularity. The urge to measure our insides by the metric of others’ outsides is powerful.

Insecure Egomaniacs

When self-centricity meets insecurity, we get Insecure Egomaniacs. In my experience, it’s not that some people are IE’s and some not – it’s that we all are IE’s, more or less, at different times. The struggle is to be less of an IE, more often, in more situations.

When we are in our IE phase, we reciprocate like alternating current between worrying that no one notices us, and that everyone is looking at us. We think ‘dance like no one’s watching,’ but we aspire to dance so well that everyone watches. We want to be at the center of the crowd, but we sit in the back row, on the side.

It’s as hard to trust an IE as it is for an IE to trust. Both arrogance and insecurity are a form of alienation, cutting us off from another, and from others. In our IE modes, we see risk everywhere, and can’t bear the thought of intimacy or vulnerability – it would either deflate our arrogance, or frighten our insecurity.  And so we rotate, iterate, prevaricate.

We are not doomed by our IE predilections, not by any means. But that’s another story.


A High Trust Strategy in a Low Trust Industry

A Face You Could Trust?Differentiation. It’s one of the two generic competitive strategies.

You’d think it’s a no-brainer. If everyone sells coffee in supermarkets based on price, invent Starbucks. If water is free from the faucet, invent Perrier. If fund performances are undifferentiated, invent index funds.

So, if your industry ranks near the bottom in trustworthiness – why not invent a trust-based company? Would that not be obvious?

Let’s not make it too tough, by tackling used cars or Congress, but let’s take the next-worst trust-scoring industry – financial services.

In a recent Gallup survey, of 22 professions, the most trusted was nursing – as it has been for many years. 85% of respondents rated nurses high or very high in “honesty or ethical standards.”

Financial services were represented in the survey by banking, insurance, and stockbrokers.

  • Bankers were ranked 11 out of 22, with 28% rating them high or very high. That puts bankers below psychiatrists and chiropractors.
  • Insurance people get only a 15% rating, which ranks them at number 16 out of 22 – below lawyers.
  • Stockbrokers rank 19th out of 22, with only 11% saying they are high or very high.  Well, at least they beat congress!

There is some evidence that financial planners, had they been included, would have scored better, though I doubt investment bankers, traders, mortgage bankers and credit card companies would have raised the industry’s average.  And the Edelman Trust Survey puts it even more starkly: “Financial services and banks are the least trusted industries for the third year in a row.”

Net net – by and large, if you’re in financial services, people don’t trust you, your company or your industry.

Again – wouldn’t it be a logical, obvious, in-your-face strategy to build a highly trusted company?  Sure it would.

And so, the big question – why hasn’t anyone done it?

Why Are There No High Trust Strategies in Finance?

I can think of five possible answers to this question, and the first one is to deny it.

  1. Wait – some companies really are high-trust.
  2. The nature of the business is highly competitive – you can’t be high trust and stay in business.
  3. The industry is full of untrustworthy, greedy, anti-consumer people.
  4. The industry is so over-regulated that trust never has a chance to get traction.
  5. The industry simply does not understand the nature of trust.

I’ll give my analysis in the next blogpost.

Meanwhile, what do you think?  Are those the five possible answers? Which one strikes you as right?

Would Manti Te’o Trust Lance Armstrong?

King Kong vs. Godzilla. The immeasurable force and the immoveable object. The mountain and Muhammed. To these historic pairings, add Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong, in the roles of trustor and trustee respectively.  (For those outside the US, Te’o is a college football player whose girlfriend tragically died – and was then revealed to be a hoax, who never even existed. You know Armstrong).

It Takes Two to Do the Trust Tango

In the game of trust, there are two players: the trustor, and the trustee.

In the flurry of press coverage this past week, Manti Te’o is cast in the role of the trustor – the person who would trust another, the one who takes the risks.  The public narrative assigned to Manti is that of someone who over-trusts, who was gullibly hoodwinked by an unscrupulous party or parties. Think victims of Bernie Madoff.

Lance Armstrong is cast in the other role in the trust game: the untrustworthy party, the one who did the hoodwinking, the one who presented himself as utterly worthy of trust – and who then let everyone down. Lance plays the Bernie Madoff role in this re-enactment.

The Balance of Trust

It is, of course, possible to be too trusting – and to be too untrustworthy. Te’o and Armstrong are poster children for overdoing it in their respective directions. But there are three things to note about these contrasts.

1. The distinction is too often overlooked. How many headlines have you seen that say,”Trust in xyz is down?” What does that really mean? Does it mean that xyz is less trustworthy? Or does it mean that people have become less trusting, thereby hurting xyz?

It’s hard to define what the solutions to trust might be if we can’t first agree on what the problem is.

2. Blame is subjective. One man’s definition of untrustworthy is another man’s definition of too trusting.  Take Bernie Madoff. While everyone agrees he was a scoundrel, some people think victims should be reimbursed in some form by society.

Others think that greedy investors, who stupidly believed what they wanted to believe despite contrary evidence, got what they deserved, and that attempts to mitigate such results amount to a nanny state.

So what should we do to prevent future Madoffs: develop tighter regulations? Or educate consumers?

3. Extreme cases demonize trust.  The moralistic lessons that the media would teach us are two-fold – one each for the trustor and the trustee.  First, that we should clamp down on the untrustworthies out there waiting to get us. And second, that we should be very wary of over-trusting.

But both of those “lessons” mitigate against trust. One imposes restrictions, the other shouts warnings. One bans cigarette advertising on TV, assault weapons, and regulates viaticals. The other instills paranoia (always lock your car, password-protect everything, screen grandma at the Duluth airport).

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Both “lessons” serve to reduce the role of trust in society.  And en masse, that is a bad thing. We need more, not less, trust.

That means we need both more trustworthiness, and more willingness to trust. The two are connected, after all: not only does trustworthiness encourage others to trust, but trusting in someone raises the odds that they will live up to those expectations.

We’d be better off raising the average level of trustworthiness than worrying about the extremely untrustworthy. We’d be better off raising the average willingness to trust than worrying about the extremely naive.

We need to be wary of drawing conclusions from the trust soap operas playing out in the public square. Be good. Expect others to be good. Live your life that way. As Gandhi (supposedly) said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or words to that effect.

Don’t live a life of paranoia. Be more trustworthy than Armstrong. Trust more intelligently than Manti Te’o. But don’t dial yourself back in either dimension. Instead, up the ante.


Trustworthy Occupations

Quickly now – which are the least-trusted professions and occupations?  If you think about it a moment, you’ll probably make pretty good guesses.

Now for a tougher one: which profession is the most trusted? This one, I find, less than half of respondents get right.

Your Profession Conveys an Image of You

The annual Gallup poll of Honesty and Ethics in Professions came out this past November. First, let’s get the fun stuff out of the way.

The next-to-least trusted profession is (drumroll…envelope please) – Members of Congress! Only 10% of respondents rate congressmen as high or very high.  And the big prize for absolutely least-trusted profession? Car salespeople. Aw, and it was so close; they came in at 8%, just two percentage points behind Congress. In fact, last year they were tied.

Well, that was easy. But who was most trusted? Engineers? A respectable 70 points, but not highest. Doctors? Tied with engineers at 70. Pharmacists outperformed doctors, with a rating of 75%.

But the profession that takes the cake for most trustworthy – for about the 13th year in a row – is nursing.

That’s right, nursing. And it makes sense, if you think about it.

Why We Trust Nurses the Most

The Trust Equation breaks trustworthiness into four factors – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation.  In studies we’ve done on the four factors, it turns out that Intimacy has the strongest correlation with high aggregate levels of trust.  That is, we tend to put more weight on that one factor than on the others.

Think about which of those four traits nurses most clearly represent.  It is intimacy – the sense that we can share our most open, vulnerable selves to another.  More than anyone else, we are willing to stand naked – metaphorically as well as literally – before nurses.  It only makes sense.

The same data suggest that women – on the whole and on the average, though not person by person – are more trustworthy than men. And almost all of women’s better scores have to do with higher scores on the intimacy factor. Need I mention that nursing is primarily a female profession? Again, it just makes sense.

Is Industry Destiny?

Are we doomed to low trust if we’re a lawyer?  A politician? A marketer? Male?  Conversely, are we guaranteed high levels of trust if we graduate from pharmacy school?

No. Trust is experienced at a personal level, and trustworthiness is primarily an individual, human trait. There are highly trustworthy salespeople, and an RN doesn’t guarantee trust.  But there’s no doubt that you have two strikes against you if you’re in a low-trust profession, and you’re spotted more than a few points if you’re in a highly trusted profession.

In the end, though, trust is personal. You have to live up to the world’s expectations – or confound them, as the case may be.  It’s up to you.

Trust, Gun Control, and Neuroscience

It may be hard to imagine, given the horrific events of Newtown Connecticut, but violence of almost all types has been declining rapidly in the US and around the world.

That’s the story in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a sweeping psycho-historical view of human nature by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pinker makes the case with some compelling data, though his ideas may be even more interesting than the statistics. And, they have something to say about Newtown and about gun control.

One theme Pinker touches on is self-control. Have you heard of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment with kids? Young kids grappled with the choice – to take one marshmallow now, or to get two if you can wait a bit? Pinker perfectly describes the accelerating discount rate that we apply to near-term gratification vs. long-term: how much more is a bird in the hand worth than two in the bush?

The answer is, it partly depends on how “in the hand” the bird is. Faced with a two-for-one tradeoff at two points in the distant future, we have no trouble – imagine choosing between two investments, one with a 10% payoff in a year, another with a 100% payoff in two years.

Self-Will and the Proximity of Temptation

The problem comes when that 10% payoff is right here, right now. Deciding whether you should have a grilled chicken salad or a Big Mac for lunch tomorrow is pretty easy.  But what about right now?  When you just happen to be standing in front of a Mickey D’s. And it’s lunchtime.

The closer we are to temptation, the weaker our self-will becomes when up against it.  We know not to shop for food when we’re hungry.  AA reminds alcoholics not to hang around bars. We put the candy on the upper shelf where the kids can’t get at it. “Just say no” has proven no match for making condoms available when it comes to halting teen pregnancy.

In short, moral development and ethical behaviors aren’t just a matter of self-will and integrity.  Good behavior is greatly affected by the social milieu – some of which can be designed into the environment.

Gun Control and Self-Will

We give up all kinds of rights in order to not tempt bad behavior. We post speed limits on roads, and enforce them.  We enforce guidelines about additives in food, and advertising guidelines about health. First amendment rights of free speech don’t extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Yet in the gun control debates, the United States is conspicuous by its refusal to recognize this simple fact of moral design – the fact that availability of guns per se is a driver of gun-based violence.

Proponents of gun control insist on framing it as an issue of self-control, pure and simple –it’s psychology, they say. But even advocates of gun control have been co-opted; they generally focus on approaches like background checks, to make sure mentally impaired people can’t acquire guns.

Screening for gun purchasers is not the problem – the problem is ubiquity, pure and simple. The marshmallows guns are lying all around, tempting the unhinged to seek immediate gratification for their fevered fantasies.

Consider: Per capita gun ownership in the US is double that of any other country – the second-highest being Yemen, far behind. We have more guns in the US than we do passenger vehicles. We have 300% more guns per capita in the US than they do in France, Germany or Austria.

The result is as predictable as it is horrific. The rate of death by assault is about 300% higher in the US than in any other OECD country.  Two-thirds of murders in the US are committed with guns. Our gun-related murder rate is second only to narco-war-afflicted Mexico.

The solution does not lie in buyer screening. The problem is that we are awash with guns in the US.

Yet the response of pro-gun forces to mass murders is always the same – to focus on the self-will of the perpetrator, or on greater defenses by potential victims. This is akin to arguing for greater investor education in the face of a Bernie Madoff, less provocative clothing in the case of rape victims, just-say-no lectures in the case of teen pregnancy.

I don’t think we’ll hear anyone arguing that 1st-graders should be armed to protect themselves. And yet, sure enough, some argue that the solution is armed teachers. Enough insanity.

It in no way reduces the moral culpability of wrong-doers for us to focus on removing the source of the temptation. Why torture a kid with marshmallows if you’re trying to teach him self-control? Why allow ourselves to be surrounded by guns if we’re serious about cutting gun violence?

If we want to create a trust-based society, rather than regress to a Hobbesian world of armed camps (and schools), we have got to recognize the critical role that society plays in establishing norms, taboos, ethics, codes of conduct, and moral behavior. What we do is greatly influenced by what’s around us.

We are not born into the world with fully-formed moral codes that can be appealed to as sufficient conditions for ethical behavior. Ethics is a social construct as much as it is innate. The gun control debate needs to move not just toward tightened purchase requirements and limitations by type of weapon, but toward significantly fewer guns, period.

Trust-based Selling

The goal of most selling is to make the sale. The goal of trust-based selling is to help the customer; the sale is an outcome, not a goal.

In trust-based selling, the right time to mention price is when it is useful to the customer to know it.

In trust-based selling, you don’t “handle objections” – you jointly explore the fit of the solution.

In trust-based selling, hard-sell is not a sin – wrong-sell is.

In trust-based selling, the acid test is whether or not you’d refer the customer to a competitor – if the competitor has the better solution.

In trust-based selling, a sale transaction is just an event along the path of a relationship.

In trust-based selling, the default mode of presentation is transparency.

In trust-based selling, the time-frame is lifetime. Assume that you will meet this customer again, along with his or her customers, cousins, bosses and Facebook friends, and that every interaction is evident to all of them instantly. That’s your reputation.

Trust-based selling relies on the proposition that people return good for good, and bad for bad. If you treat a customer respectfully and with trust, and they happen to need what you are selling, the natural response is to buy it from you.

That proposition is not only an ethical template – it is a business model.

Trust-based Selling: McGraw-Hill, also available in Kindle and CD-ROM format. It’s a good book.

If Trust in the Media is Down, is that Bias? Or Paranoia?

Trust in the Media is Down.  Again, still, more. Gallup is out with a new poll, showing that 60% of the US population “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”

Strikingly, 58% of Democrats indicate a “great deal or fair amount of trust” in mass media – the comparable number for Republicans is only 26%.

The party line is that the fault lies with the media, that media needs to be and be seen as more trustworthy.  Here is Gallup’s own version of that line:

Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other.

No, Gallup, not clear at all. In fact, far from it.

Trust, Trusting and Being Trusted

Gallup’s right about one thing: the media continues to miss a simple distinction–that between trust, trusting and being trusted. Simply put:

  1. To trust, a verb, is to willingly put oneself in harm’s way of another
  2. Being trusted, or trustworthiness, is a noun – a characteristic of the one being trusted
  3. Trust, also a noun, is the result of one party trusting, and the other party being trusted.

Every time you see a headline like this one – US Distrust in Media Hits New High – you can bet you’re seeing data about #3. But the commentary frequently assumes the data means #2.  In other words, this article and many others confuses “trust” with “trustworthiness.”

Suppose you have 10 customers who trust you. You could say the level of trust between you and your customers is high.

Now suppose you get five new customers, all of whom are highly suspicious people, hence are suspicious of you, even though you’ve done nothing different. You could say the level of trust has declined. But not because of any change in your trustworthiness.

The question is: if trust is down, is that because the trustee is less trustworthy? Or because the trustor is less inclined to trust?

The Tyranny of Metrics

Like the drunk who looked for his keys under the streetlamps not because he lost it there, but because there was more light, it’s tempting to measure trust, because that’s easier than measuring trustworthiness or the propensity to trust. But that’s unfortunate – because if all you can say about trust is that it’s up or down, you can’t say why that’s so. And if you can’t say why that’s so, you can’t develop sensible policies to affect it.

Metrics do exist, by the way, for both trustworthiness and for the propensity to trust.  At a corporate level, Trust Across America provides a sound definition of trustworthiness, and data for all publicly traded US companies.  At a personal level, the Trust Quotient from Trusted Advisor Associates does the same.

One of the oldest and most establish trust metrics comes from the General Social Survey, which has tracked for 40 years the answers to a few questions about the propensity to trust strangers.  One of academia’s most respected trust scholars, Dr. Eric Uslaner, writes mainly about the propensity to trust and the increase in distrust.

Next time you read an article asserting that “trust is down,” ask yourself – which side moved?

Trust in Media

The Gallup data show that Democrats with high trust in media went from 65% to 58% – a 10.8% decline. By contrast, Republicans went from 39% to 26% – a 33% decline. Whether you believe the trustworthiness of the media went up, down or sideways, it seems clear that the propensity to trust of one group went down more than another.

What does low propensity to trust mean? Eric Uslaner sums it up: people who trust others tend to be optimistic about the world, and to believe they have some control over their destinies. People who distrust, by contrast, tend to believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and that others (“those people”) are responsible.  If you see a parallel between the two major parties, may I suggest it’s no accident.

So when Gallup concludes, “Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans,” I respectfully disagree. The purveyors of cynicism often have a lot more responsibility to bear for fomenting distrust and negativity.

When trust is down, who moved? Sometimes it’s the trustor, not the trustee.

Cheating at Harvard: Shocked, Shocked!

Perhaps you heard: half of a 250-person undergraduate class at Harvard has been accused of cheating on an exam. Here are:

Let’s get the irrelevancies out of the way.  First, the class was “Introduction to Congress.” Pause for yucks.

Secondly, there are the occasional whiners: “it was really hard, not fair,” or “they didn’t tell us how to define things.” Let’s not pause here either.

Moving right along, now, let’s assume that Harvard is no better or worse than other schools. You may agree or not, but I think the interesting issues lie elsewhere.

David Gebler, ethicist and author of the recent The Three Power Values, says: “It’s the worst hypocrisy to create a set of social norms and expectations in our society of which Harvard is the pinnacle, and then act as shocked as Inspector Renault in Casablanca that the students are acting unethically.”

He’s right. There are three interesting student reactions that seem to crop up in articles about the scandal:

  1. You mean, that was “cheating?”
  2. Come on, everybody does that.
  3. What do you expect me to do, the point is to win.

All three are serious causes for concern, but for very different reasons.

You Mean, That was Cheating?

This isn’t as dumb as many may think on first hearing.

The class in question was conducted making heavy use of teaching aides and study groups. This makes great sense given the need for collaborative workforces in the future. Unfortunately, if learning is primarily group learning, it puts pressure on the academic program and faculty to be very clear about boundaries between individual and group accountability.  (There’s a parallel here between group and individual bonus bases within corporations).

That raises many challenges, chief among them that the exam was “open internet.” In a day and age when everyone can share everything with everyone else in real-time, this goes beyond being just a barn-door of a loophole; it’s a fundamental failure to articulate the distinction between individual and group accountabilities.

This doesn’t mean students didn’t behave unethically; but it puts if anything more of a burden on institutions, particularly on schools, to delineate the boundaries.

Come On, Everybody Does That

To the extent this is true – and it’s considerable – shame on the role models.

As Howard Gardner points out in When Ambition Trumps Ethics, within the hallowed Ivy halls alone there are plenty of examples of

“professors [who] cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research.

Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others’ work — there are frequently no clear punishments. If punishments ensue, they are kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.”

Gardner cites frequent, broad-based, research over time that suggests students over the last 20 years have become blasé about violations.  The majority think firing faculty for falsification of resumes is an over-reaction, and they don’t see much wrong with the behavior of the Enron gang in manipulating prices. After all, “everyone does it.”

I needn’t mention the coverups of the Catholic church, the repression of the ruling class at Penn State, or the general defense of cyclist Lance Armstrong, just to pick a few recent examples. And for heaven’s sake let’s not talk the fate of truth at political party conventions. Sadly, everyone really, really does do that.

“Everybody does that” is no excuse, widespread though it is. Cheating is unethical and should be condemned. But those doing the condemning are frequently those who, like Renault, are by default encouraging the behavior by their failure to act.

What Do You Expect – the Point is to Win

This is the most shocking of the attitudes. While the other two reflect some ambiguity in execution, this argument attacks ethics directly, claiming that ethics should be subordinated to the pursuit of success. A classic ends justify the means argument, which is in principle anti-ethical.

Rich Sternhell, retired executive, says he was not surprised by Gardner’s piece.

“By the time people get to Harvard (or Yale or Penn State or wherever) they have had to compete in ways that never tempted my generation. I note David Brooks’ observation of the recent GOP Convention, how all the speakers with the notable exception of Condoleeza Rice talked about “I” rather than “we”.

Every individual example of ethical violation weakens our community bond.  Baseball players worry about their contracts not the team. CEOs worry about their parachutes or share value, not the legacy of the company.  The concept of stewardship is rarely heard.”

I would throw in for equal blame our leading business thinkers.  We have become subconsciously infected by the doctrines of competitive advantage, shareholder value, and an Ayn-Rand-lensed perversion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, so much that we have a generation that can’t tell ethics from economics.  We actually have game theorists in the Harvard Business Review arguing that throwing a match in the Olympics is in principle no different from a lob shot in tennis – since after all, the ultimate goal is to win.

People, the purpose of business is not to make a profit.  That way lies madness. And a generation of cheaters.

They are still morally to blame, but the people who raised them, taught them, trained them and role-modeled for them are at least as culpable.