The Case of the Untrustworthy Managers

The Power of Deduction and TrustA long time ago, in a land far away (known as “Texas”), I once had a consulting client. They operated a chain of convenience stores, and we had been brought in to address a serious case of high store manager turnover.

Turnover was running about 150%, which meant the average store manager lasted only about 9 months. It was a tough business. Most sales came from gasoline and beer, and the clientele wasn’t the most genteel. So obviously the company was doing a poor job of selecting managers.

Obvious, that was, until a clue smacked me in the face. As with many retail businesses, shrinkage was a problem. Therefore, every month, every store manager was given a lie detector test. And sure enough, a great many managers eventually flunked the test and were fired. On average, this happened at about the ninth month of employment.

Nice Work, Sherlock

The astute among you can already see what took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. The lie detector tests, intended to uncover deceitful behavior, in fact induced that very behavior. Management practices were suborning thievery.  After a while, each manager would figure, “Well somebody must be getting away with something, maybe I should try,” and another self-fulfilling prophecy would come to pass.

Put another way – management’s distrust of its store managers caused them to behave in an untrustworthy manner.

Cause, Effect, and Reciprocity

Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd was about a completely honest, trustworthy young man. But rare it is that character alone can withstand the attacks of low expectations; the environment we live in plays a key role as well. Employee trustworthiness isn’t purely bought through hiring. It can be reinforced, or incapacitated, depending on the corporate culture that new employees encounter.

The case of the convenience store highlights the vicious circle of low expectations resulting in low trustworthiness. But it works the other way too.  “The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” said Henry Stimson. And apparently Hemingway. And maybe Gandhi, too. And Steven M.R. Covey. In other words, it’s pretty much received wisdom now.

As someone else once said, “Whether you expect good or ill of someone – that’s what you’ll get.”

If you want a trust-based company, start trusting the stakeholders all around you.  That means your customers, your partners, your employees, your bosses, your suppliers. And expect them to return the gesture. The power of reciprocity in human relations is such that you will, far more often than not, have your expectations fulfilled.

7 replies
  1. Sandy
    Sandy says:


    I’m curious about the outcome of that consulting assignment: did senior management hear your message and start showing a little more faith in their coal managers?

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Unfortunately, this was not one of my stellar success stories. The management was largely ex military, and accustomed to command and control. They were not at all amenable to what must have felt like giving control of the asylum to the inmates.
      If I knew then what I know now about message delivery and the dynamics of influence, I probably could have figured out a way to get the advice taken. As it was, this was a “learning opportunity.”

  2. Kelly Riggs
    Kelly Riggs says:

    And Booker T. Washington: “Few things help an individual more than to
    place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him”

    Great article, Charles! It’s amazing to me: As employees, we are dying for the boss to trust us. Once we become bosses, we soon decide people can’t be trusted.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    [This comment is from Jim Peterson, forwarded to me by email]

    Charlie —

    Like this very much.

    It’s a particular example of a broader proposition, explored at length by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their great work, “Nudge” — namely, that one of the reasons positive incentives are observably more effective than neegative ones is that the latter put people directly into the kind of questioning your example illustrates, of the prevalent extent of non-compliance.

    Thus — the extent of beneficial behaviors in such areas as timely income tax return filing and obedience to environmental warnings is found to be higher where the population is urged to join their community members in positive actions — i.e., “most people do ……” — rather than the exigent finger-pointing of “don’t be late” — “don’t litter” etc.

    Great — thanks —



Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] – explain to the other party what it felt like, and offer them another shot. Remember, the fastest way to make someone trustworthy is to trust […]

  2. […] – explain to the other party what it felt like, and offer them another shot. Remember, the fastest way to make someone trustworthy is to trust […]

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