The S Trap: Is Self-orientation Destroying Your Trustworthiness?

Since The Trusted Advisor was first published in 2000, the most popular theme in the book has been the Trust Equation.

And within that equation, the factor that has stirred the most interest over the years has been the denominator, self-orientation. In the trust equation, since the S factor is in the denominator, a high level of self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. A low level of self-orientation serves to increase trustworthiness.

Self-Orientation Is About Focus

Self-orientation is essentially about our focus: is it on us or is it on them?

Our self-orientation is low (which is good) when our focus is on the other person, and it’s high (which is not good) when our focus is on us.

You’d think that, as people in professional services, we could confidently say our focus is nearly always on the client. If only that were true. High-self orientation creeps into our everyday interactions in all manner of sneaky and insidious ways.

The most obvious form of high self-orientation is when we are focused on our own goals/needs/desires above those of our client. Think of a stereotypical used-car salesman who will say anything to make the sale. Thankfully, because this form of self-orientation is so obvious, it is somewhat rare in professional services.

More common in professional services are the subtler, more insidious examples of high self-orientation: wanting to be right, wanting to be the one to solve the problem, subtly competing for attention and recognition, or wanting to be liked.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of high self-orientation can tip into self-obsession. Especially when we go into a situation anxious, or stressed, or lacking confidence, sometimes we just can’t get out of our own heads.

When we are so focused on what others think of us, there’s no space left for us to think about them.

High Self-orientation Diminishes Trust

When we are operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our own head drowns them out.

The psychology goes like this: if your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they feel safe and are likely to trust you.

Conversely, if your attention is focused on yourself, others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they deem you less trustworthy.

We can test our S by asking ourselves if what we are saying or doing is truly in service to the relationship, vs. in service to ourselves.

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

Selfishness is zero-sum – I get what I want, and you do not – which is not the same as having high self-orientation. If you are selfish, you are probably pretty self-oriented. But you may also be highly unselfish, yet attached to the idea of others seeing you as unselfish. That is also high self-orientation.

Sometimes people equate low self-orientation with passivity or with willingness to give away business, cut price, or otherwise let the other party “win.” It means nothing of the kind.

A low self-orientation is critical to legitimate client focus. You cannot be focused on customers if you are obsessed with the activity in your own brain. Since client focus is a driver of profitability, this leads to a wonderful paradox: if you focus on achieving profitability by way of client focus, you will sub-optimize. Yet if you focus on the good of the client, rather than the funds you can extract from their accounts, you will achieve greater profitability – by treating it as a byproduct rather than as a goal.

Here’s a simple practical tool for avoiding high self-orientation: seek humility. That does not mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.