When Arrogance Feigns Humility

At my seminars, one of the actions I suggest to increase perceived trustworthiness is to speak truthfully.

Sounds great in principle, until you get into just which truths you discuss.

Speaking conventional, obvious truths (“how ‘bout them Bulls”)  doesn’t do much to create either distinction or deeper trust. Hence the usefulness of talking about things that don’t get said by others (“Joe, I’m sensing some hesitation here—is that right?”).

At this point, attendees often raise the issue of propriety, as in, “Some things should best be left unsaid—you don’t want to embarrass people or make them uncomfortable.  And if people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, they’re not likely to trust you anyway.”

I tell them my experience is that most businesspeople don’t suffer from telling too much truth, but from telling too little. And so on. We generally have good discussions about the issue.

But occasionally that discussion goes to a higher plane. So it was recently, when an attendee and I talked at a break:

“I buy what you’re saying about our general hesitation to take personal risks in the workplace,” she said, “and you’re right—we’re making the client take the hit for our own insecurities.”

“But what about those cases where it’s actually true? Where to hear something really would be upsetting to the client, even if it’s true, and potentially important for them. Maybe it’s an issue I’m not totally sure of.  Maybe it’s a situation where I can get by with just saying most of the truth; or maybe the risk of embarrassment to me truly does exceed the benefit of truth-telling to the client. Aren’t you really helping the client by taking into account what you know of their reactions and ability to hear tough truths, and packaging them accordingly?”

I thought to myself, “Those are good questions: and we do have an obligation to our clients to say important things in ways they can hear them. But we have another obligation, to figure out how to say those tough truths, rather than deep-six them.”

Yet, how to say that to this thoughtful and insightful person?

I suddenly remembered a wonderful quote from Martha Graham

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

I said to the participant, “I’m sure you don’t think of it this way, but is it conceivable that your genuinely good intentions and insights are nonetheless making you behave arrogantly? In the sense that you are depriving your client of the right to make this decision for him- or herself? And if you don’t trust your client to handle the truth–doesn’t that ultimately degrade their trust in you as well?”

I didn’t need to elaborate.  She reacted immediately with shock at the suggestion that she, a most pleasant person, could conceivably be thought arrogant; but in half a second I saw quickly saw in her eyes that she ‘got’ it, and understood the meaning, and the truth, of the question.

Then, I think, she smiled a bit. Which, I suspect, Martha Graham would have appreciated.

A Tendency to Blame and an Inability to Confront

I am on vacation this week, and will be going back to the vault for some ‘oldies but goodies’ posts.  I hope you enjoy them: I’ll be back in a week or so with new material.

Over a delightful lunch last week, a client said to me, “I don’t remember where I got this, but I have a saying I keep nearby in my office:

"All management problems boil down to two things: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront."

“I know where you got it from,” I said; “you got it from me, and I got it from Phil McGee.” Credit where credit’s due, Phil.

And here’s why credit is due.

A tendency to blame. To “blame” someone means to falsely suggest that they are responsible for some negative thing. The problem starts with ‘falsely,’ and gets worse.

To lie about someone makes you a liar. It means we cannot believe what you say. It means your motives are suspect, and therefore all actions that follow from them.

And lying about someone’s responsibility isn’t just lying–it’s lying about someone. It is an indirect form of character assassination. “Blamethrowing” is an apt pun, for blaming is ferociously destructive.

Finally, it’s evasive. “It-was-him” means “it-was-not-me.” Blaming means manipulating the listener—for the blamer’s own hidden purposes.

Inability to confront. Blame goes hand in hand with an inability to confront others directly with the truth. “The truth” is very simple—it’s what happened, what someone felt, what is. It’s reality.

I mean “confront” here not in a negative sense, but in a sense of being able to speak, to another human being, that which is true. Inability to confront means inability to have an honest conversation with another about the truth.

Evasion. Insinuation. Insincerity. Implication. Avoidance. Dodging, fudging, skirting, deception, fabrication, distortion. These are accusations we level against those who cannot confront.

Yet the accused doesn’t hear them—because their inability to confront extends to themselves. “I didn’t mean to hurt,” they say—often sincerely. But partially "good" motives do not excuse wrongful actions—or inactions.

Is Phil overstating the case when he says “all management problems can be reduced” to these two? Let’s see. What about:

• Giving and receiving feedback
• Interviewing
• Delegation
• Teamwork
• Engagement
• Leadership
• Morale
• Collaboration
• Crisis management
• Persuasion
• Trustworthiness
• Problem definition
• Project management
• Relationship management

Blame and inability to confront affect each item on that list, and that list covers a multitude of management issues.

What is the opposite of a tendency to blame and an inability to confront?

Someone who speaks the truth. Who speaks it in a way that can be heard by all. Someone who accepts his own responsibility—no more, no less. Someone who simply sees things as they are. And who is willing to assign responsibility exactly where it belongs, equally whether it’s his or someone else’s.

When we can see things as they are, and confront them as such, “blame” disappears. There is simply truth, and our various roles in dealing with it. Once seen, it is easily spoken.

The trick is to see things as they are.




I Screwed Up

Thanks go to President Obama for timing his first major Presidential misstep to coincide with my delivery of a “Being a Trusted Advisor” workshop.

In class, we had been talking about human nature and the gravitational pull to avoid admitting culpability and generally looking bad when—voila—there appeared the perfect teaching point on the front page of the New York Times.

Whatever your politics, there are two key lessons to be derived from the “I screwed up” message that President Obama delivered on the heels of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration as the next secretary of Health and Human Services:

1.  Take full responsibility. He pointed his own finger at himself. He didn’t say “I regret the unfortunate circumstances and misinformation that led to the selection of Mr. Daschle.” He didn’t hitch his wagon to Daschle’s admission of his own mistake. No, Obama said, “I screwed up.”

2.  Keep it simple. He used plain talk. Three simple words. I told workshop participants to use no more than ten words when there’s a hard truth to be told. Obama came in seven under.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look good (as in, “Mr. Client, I have 20 years of experience solving the kinds of problems you are facing right now”) increases your credibility by demonstrating your expertise.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look bad (as in, “I screwed up”) is a trust trifecta: your honesty boosts your credibility, your humanity creates intimacy, and your willingness to subordinate your own ego lowers your self-orientation. 

It’s another part of the trust paradox: doing what makes you look bad (telling the truth) makes you look good.  As long as you really mean it.


A Contender for Worst Business Advice of 2008

If your customers trust you, that’s good, right? Like, really good?

So suppose you wanted to ruin trust with your customers. What would you do to destroy trust?

• You might try lying to the client.
• You might try saying one thing and doing another.
• You could try keeping secrets from the customer.
• You could refuse to answer direct questions.
• You could actively prevent your customers from learning about cost-saving solutions.

Incredibly, these are specific recommendations made by a business blog, Drooling for Dollars (the name tells you something), in a post titled “A Successful Businessman Keeps Secrets From His Clients.

In this post, the author offers nuggets like “never let a client know your hourly rate,” “tell your client that the work will be completed in 3 weeks although you get it done in 3 days,” and talks about “those irritating and annoying clients who ask too many questions before making a deal.”

It’s good to answer some questions, says the piece–it helps build trust. But don’t go overboard with it—trust could ruin you if those nasty competitors called “customers” find out too much.

The author summarizes: “There are pieces of information you should never reveal to your client, no matter how many times they ask or how much they insist you [sic].”

Uh huh? Really?

Anyone wanna help me shoot some fish in a barrel? The comment section is right below.

Lying to Get the Sale

Suzanne Lowe, at The Expertise Marketplace, has a provocative post titled I Told the Truth—and Got Hired Anyway.

Briefly, she faced two sales situations in which she knew she’d be asked the inevitable question: what experience do you have working in our business?

The truthful answer boiled down to, “none at all.”  Since we all know this is the “wrong” answer, it took a certain amount of courage for Suzanne to speak the truth, and even more courage to then avoid rushing into the silence to list the dozens of reasons why she was nonetheless the best for the job, etc.

The punch line in Suzanne’s posting was, of course, that she got the job. And she asked her readers to help explain why.

Now, what I find curious is not the fact that she got the job—but her readers’ explanations for it.

To me, the reason she got the job seemed transparently clear, almost self-evident.  She got the job because she immediately proved she was honest, transparent, truthful—and those personal characteristics in this case outweighed the importance of industry experience—as they frequently, though not always, do.

Yet to my surprise other commenters had different explanations.  Their explanations included:

• Maybe the client saw the greater relevance of her experience in other industries
• This may be the rare client who is not risk-averse
• Maybe lack of industry knowledge meant no bias, hence an open mind—ignorance here is a plus
• Maybe her integrity helped feed a broader sense of chemistry about her

My first reaction to these other reasons (I’m trying to be honest here), was one of disbelief.   It’s always shocking to me when other people don’t see things precisely the way I do.  ("How could these people not see"…."Why don’t they understand…"). 

I mean, don’t you know who I think I am?

Yet, I know some of these commenters. They are bright, experienced, knowledgeable people.

Unfortunately, this means I am denied access to my preferred, first-blush, gut-instinct explanation for why they might disagree with me, namely they’re ignorant fools. (“Damn; I have to take these opinions seriously.”)

So, I have two questions for this audience.

1. What do you make of Suzanne’s tale; why do you think her clients in each case bought her services despite her lack of industry credentials?

2. What do you make of my being shocked at the other answers? What’s your first reaction when you find out someone has a different reaction to something you felt was obvious? And what do you do about it?

You Lying, Cheating Dog, You

Most of us lie, at least a touch.  Maybe cheat a little bit, too.

But it’s interesting to explore just why, and when, we do so. That’s the subject of a charming little piece in the current Harvard Business Review (February 2008, paper only) called “How Honest People Cheat,” by Dan Ariely.

A simple experiment. Give a few thousand people math problems to solve for money. Use a control group to establish average scores. Then rip up the exams in front of the test groups, and ask them to self-report how well they did.

The control group got 4 of 20 right. The test groups, on average, reported getting 6 of 20 right. By one measure, they cheated by 50%. By another, they cheated 12.5% of the available opportunity to cheat.

Then the researchers made it interesting.

1. They varied the risk of getting caught. Result? No change at all.

2. They substituted poker chips (redeemable later for money) for money itself. Result: a doubling of cheating.

3. They preceded the test by having participants reflect on their own standards of honesty, e.g. the Ten Commandments or an honor system. Result: complete cessation of cheating.

Ariely draws three conclusions:

1. Most of us will cheat a little, given the opportunity
2. Our consciences impose limits even when there’s no risk of sanctions
3. Non-monetary exchanges allow people to cheat more, e.g. backdating stock options.

Ariely seems to make the most of the third one, suggesting it explains Enron, for example.

I would emphasize it another way.  This elegant little study suggests that the threat of individual punishment carries far less weight than does the exhortation to do right by a group norm.

Now, it’s quite a leap from a small study to suggesting that prisons should focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment and retribution—but that’s the direction.

It’s a leap to say that white collar crime will be deterred less by Elliot Spitzer-like prosecutions than by airing criminal behavior to the disapproval of a broad public—but that’s the direction.

If you can’t trust someone, do you follow Ronald Reagan and “trust, but verify?”  Or do you have a sit-down with them about their responsibilities to be trustworthy? Let’s just say this study is anti-Reagan. 

At root, this study reminds us that much of individual behavior is not explained by that old economist standby, the “rational, self-aggrandizing homo economicus,” who does all that he does in order to improve his own economic well-being.

It suggests that human beings are also—very much—social creatures. We even build our own personal values systems (aka consciences) based on our sense of what furthers our relationships to other human beings.

Is that so hard to understand? 

Customers and Bottled Water: It’s the Coverup Not the Crime

Advertising Age presents Martin Lindstrom, at Coca Cola’s home in Atlanta, in his video:

Watering Down the Coke Brand?

Admitting the Source of Bottled Water

ATLANTA (BRANDFlash) — It’s surprising how just three letters — "PWS" — can generate such angst throughout an industry as large and savvy as the North American beverage business. But the issue of publicly admitting that bottled water comes from a "Public Water Source" is a huge one for marketers such as Coke. The concern, of course, is that if the consumers know those expensive bottles of water come from the same public reservoirs as tap water they’ll cease buying them. But, in fact, similar experiences in other categories show that consumers will not easily abandon products that have become as much of a habit as bottled water.

Lindstrom talks about Coke’s effort to introduce Dasani in the UK as a pure, pristine water. It’s a message that didn’t go over well when the truth came out (PWS), then took a second hit from a bottling contaminant scandal.

Lindstrom’s tone is bemused. And rightfully so.  As businessmen and politicians are continually rediscovering—it’s the cover-up that hurts you, not the crime. Think Nixon. Jeff Skilling. Larry Craig. OJ.  Monicagate.  Rigas. Mark Foley.  Corvair. Ted Haggard. Dan Rather.  Bhopal.  It’s endless.

And yet—as Lindstrom accurately reports, “The [marketers’] concern… is that if the consumers know those expensive bottles of water come from the same public reservoirs as tap water they’ll cease buying them.”

I know! I’ve got an idea! Let’s just shade the truth a bit.  Not a flat out lie, of course.  Just repositioning.  Images, not words.  Suggestions, hints, juxtapositions, transference, intonations.  Nothing illegal.  No lies, of course.  After all, what do you take us for?

It is shockingly hard for most of us to just tell the truth.  Maybe marketers have just a little harder time than the rest of us?  Maybe their paranoia is just more publicly visible. 

What’s peculiar is—as Lindstrom points out—the truth really isn’t so bad.  Consumers can be quite comfortable buying PWS water. It mainly depends on—whether they’ve been told the truth about it.  The whole truth.  And nothing else.

If we doubt the truth of any part of a message—not just lies, but omissions, shifts, allusions, and particularly motives—then everything begins to unravel. What a tangled web we weave…

Once we doubt someone’s motives, it’s like dominoes—one statement after another gets challenged.  We become cynics.  And we end up not trusting the speaker.

A good case  can be made for Public Water Supply water; it’s not so hard to make.   And it beats the heck out of an implied fake that ends up being discovered for what it is.

A lie by any other name will smell the same.  Like contaminated water.


Trust and Radical Honesty

The July, 2007 issue of Esquire (not yet online as of this date) has a story called “I Think You’re Fat,” by A. J. Jacobs. It asks—and answers—the age-old question, what do you say when your wife asks you if this dress makes her look fat?

And that’s just for openers.

It describes writer Jacobs’ encounters with a movement called Radical Honesty; actually, with its founder Brad Blanton. And it’s a trip.

Trust Matters readers know I’ve written about honesty and lying before (most recently with Andrea Howe in Truth, Lies and Unicorns.)

But Blanton takes it to another level. Higher? Well, certainly a different level.

Blanton urges—and lives by—a very simple rule. Flat-out, no holds-barred, absolute, unquestioned honesty. About everything. Period. Open mouth, exit thought. No excuses, no caveats, no handholding, no cover-ups, no being nice. Just truth.

Author Jacobs confesses a white lie he told someone to avoid hurting that person. Blanton’s take on it: “Your lie is not useful to him. It’s simply avoiding responsibility. That’s okay. But don’t bullshit yourself about it being kind.”

Blanton’s got his own site, books and programs. He’s ex-Esalen, about 60, and a gruff hedonist, among other things. Easy to be put off by, but hard not to like. Here are some of his own words:

The heart of the message of Radical Honesty is that we can come to recognize each other as beings in common. We do this by being honest and by demanding honesty from others. This is the fundamental faith of both Radical Honesty and it’s corollary religion, Futilitarianism…Futilitarianism is about the futility of any belief whatsoever…

…beings who relate as beings, one to another, can work out the problems that come from having minds and personalities and cultural and religious and traditional differences, since those differences are all bullshit anyway! We can change how we live together by acknowledging the being we are, (nothing mysterious or mystical—just the sensate being in the body), as the universal context in which the mind occurs. We recognize each other as alike. One pathetic, mind-controlled, culturally conditioned pitiful sonofabitch, anywhere in the world, looks just about like another. Underneath all that confusing and alienating bullshit we are beings in common.

Who I am, is a present-tense, noticing being, and the idea of me—my case history and culture and values and beliefs—is secondary to my fundamental identity as a noticing, present-tense being. I can see, at the same time, that this is true for everyone else. I relate to everyone else as equals in this way. I relate to these fellow beings by being true to my own experience. This being-to-being relatedness is what allows me to make compassionate, collective decisions with my fellow cripples—I mean human beings.

Think you can justify not telling your spouse something? The white lie to your subordinate? The truth about your attraction to your office-mate?
Go ahead, test it. Check out Blanton.

You may not agree with him, but you’ll have a helluva hard time justifying why you don’t.