Trust, Privacy and Professionalism

Carey Bertolet blogs on “Personal Isn’t Private: Advice for New Lawyers in the New Milennium” about increasing opportunities for personal behavior to become public—in the workplace.

Bertolet lists funny-as-long-as-it-isn’t me private emails gone public, ranging from dating behavior to employment disagreements. His message: “Everyone is entitled to a personal life, but it’s important to be aware that your personal life isn’t necessarily private…Big Brother isn’t necessarily watching—but he very possibly uses the same dry cleaner.”

Bertolet is certainly right—but it goes further. The personal is becoming less private—and professionalism must become more personal.

20 years ago I had a rolodex. It had maybe 400 names on it, many outdated. Half didn’t hear from me even once a year. I met maybe 200 new people per year as a consultant. I had published one article. I went to a couple association-type meetings per year.

My clients were stable organizations. Their issues were either strategic—competitive battles with other stable organizations—or managerial—the techniques of influencing others within their organization.

Fast-forward. I have 3000 names in my Outlook database, which I cull frequently. I can recall nearly every one. I communicate much more frequently. I send more holiday cards than I used to, and of course massively more emails. I blog. I publish articles on my site, and on others’ sites. I meet thousands of people per year. I now take cell-phone photos of clients to match up with names. At Iguazu Falls, Brazil a few weeks ago, my blackberry’s data reception was as good as in Manhattan.

I am vastly more connected to vastly more people. As, no doubt, are you.

My clients are not stable organizations—they are in flux. People come and go more frequently—and more easily. “Disloyal employee” is becoming an oxymoron. One of my clients sells 95% of its product through partners who are also competitors. Every one of my clients is an outsourcer; several are insourcers of others. Corporations of one (like me) are increasing.

As business processes become more and more discrete, they become more and more plug-compatible (think object-oriented programming for an analogy). Transactions that used to happen internally now happen externally. The internal world of a fixed organization is becoming the outer world of inter-organizational commerce.

The world is becoming less about competitive production, and more about commercial collaboration. Less vertical, more horizontal. Les internal, more external. The atomic unit of business is no longer the corporation: it’s the individual. We move around. Our benefits and pensions are less tied to our employer. Ditto our personal lives.

The idea of “private” behaviors is becoming obsolete.

You can conclude, as Bertolet does, that you’d better watch your private behavior; assume whatever you say will end up on the cover of The Times, that every email will be circulated to everyone. True that, and good advice.

But there are two more conclusions.

I used to smoke. Then it became a private behavior in an increasingly public world. It was too hard to maintain, impossible to keep private. Being cautious is exhausting. It’s difficult to hide the real you in an increasingly public world!
I finally just quit smoking? Analogously, why not live your life in such a way that you’re not concerned about it being public?

What if you always behaved well toward others? Didn’t tell lies. Got over resentments. Lived a grateful and giving life. And so forth. Then you wouldn’t have to worry much about things being revealed.

The second conclusion has to do with professionalism. If private lives conflict with professionalism, then we need to focus on the real core of professionalism, not on outward manifestations.

I used to wear a tie. I stopped after most of my clients did. A tie is the height of symbolism-without-function. Yes, in a way it signifies respect. But a world that demands to be connected needs less symbolism, and more real connection.

Professional codes of conduct need revisiting to ensure they fit with an increasingly connected world. Stock brokers, software manufacturers, real estate agents, financial planners, lawyers, movie makers, book publishers—all these industries, and more, need to re-examine their concepts of professionalism to give greater weight to client and employee relationships. “Caveat emptor” sucks as a standard of professionalism. So does “sustainable competitive advantage.”

The debates about private property and copyrights are going to get resolved—in favor of the commons. In an increasingly interconnected world, we can’t afford to let an insistence on 18th century property rights dominate the collective good the way we did even just 20 years ago.

20 years ago I met a man in Vero Beach selling carved totem poles. He was from Arizona, had a wide-bed 6-wheel pickup, wore a cowboy hat. We talked a bit. I asked him about life in the desert. He swore vehemently no one was going to take away his god-given right to drill as much water as he wanted under whatever sandy piece of the earth’s surface was legally owned by him.

His world is shrinking. The world is increasingly public. We can protest it, or be wary about it—but we’re way better off dealing with it.

The sandbox hasn’t grown. But many more of us are playing in it, all day long, 24-7.

Getting along is the new getting ahead.