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.