Trust-Building: You’re Doing It Wrong

Are you familiar with the Laffer Curve? It was an economic idea leveraged by the Reagan administration to show how an increase in the tax rate would actually result in a decrease in government revenue. The idea was that if you continue to raise the tax rate it would reach such a point causing people to change their behavior (i.e. no longer pay taxes, stopping work, and fraud would be the extreme response). So no revenue at 0% and none at 100%. Somewhere in the middle you get maximum return on the tax rate.

Can this happen with the social currency of trust? Can we over do trust-building efforts to where trust actually diminishes? I think we can and I think it’s happening.

At a recent dentist appointment my doctor informed me that I will need a crown on a back molar. It appears a faulty filling led to decay and the tooth is too fragile.

Got it. Completely believable, when’s my next appointment? 

But he wasn’t done. He prepped for an inter-oral camera and took a series of pictures of my teeth. Then he displayed the detailed, colorful images and showed me what he saw. He’s my Dentist, he’s treated me numerous times, I already trust him due to previous experiences so why all this hoopla? I’ve seen these camera’s used before. In those times I felt like being convinced for less medically necessary actions. I felt like he went into auto-pilot, zombie-like, he pushed some internal play button and it was obvious. I now had some doubt where I didn’t before.

For the record, I don’t believe he was trying to up-sell me, I think it is a misguided practice and his approach is not atypical. There are reasons for this type of preemptive activity happening across many industries today. For starters we do have a global trust issue. Wrong doing at all levels of business and government in recent years has rightfully led people to question every action. This has resulted in many business leaders having a heightened sensitivity to the issue and strive to be more pro-active about building trust. In an effort to get ahead of potential trust problems, business leaders have sought new ideas and examples to leverage; best practices if you will to appear more honest and caring in an effort to build relationships, improve employee retention, put people first, etc.

But too much trust-building can result in the appearance of duplicity.

Businesses are applying a wide range of trust-building tactics and there inlies the problem, they are well-known tactics, often plug-in-play with a little contextual modification. In today’s world, transparency means employees and consumers alike are just as aware of them and too many tactics can appear as tricks. So how do you as a leader know when trust is built? When do you know you are crossing the line? This is tricky, it’s a gut feeling, its found in reading body language or online, it’s seen in the depth and details of conversation responses.

People are individuals and cookie cutter approaches should never be applied even when the intention is sincere. This is hard though. We like formulas and patented approaches but this, trust-building, is different. It’s about being human and being human is just about being honest, flawed, natural. Being human is not a strategy.

Organization, Heal Thyself

I hurt my back pretty bad back in February. Shortly after the injury I reluctantly went to a Chiropractor. I say reluctantly as it’s not something I completely understood or believed in as I have always been conditioned to accept traditional medicine; surgery, medications, etc. What I learned from the experience is that Chiropractic medicine is about the body’s ability to heal itself. Generally speaking (and likely oversimplifying it) when the body is in alignment, effective communication happens through nerves and blood flow and the body maintains health. This got me wondering about how poorly organizations are designed today, they are misaligned resulting in:

  • cultures that need to be changed,
  • the creation of blanket HR policies to address small, singular problems
  • structures that support star chamber-like decision making in times of crisis,
  • procedures developed to secure consistency and conformity but stifled innovation and creativity
  • training being overused to address performance issues
  • a default to meritless, inflexible hierarchy

Everything is out of alignment (with the way the world works today).

So, similar to the chiropractic view of the body if an organization is aligned correctly, when the systems and the people can effectively and efficiently communicate, won’t it to function properly?

Gwynne Dyer wrote an exceptional article a few years ago about Democracy, nation building and the Middle East. From it I caught a quote that really resonated:

Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communication problem.

With a slight adjustment; replacing the word tyranny with hierarchy the remainder of the message holds true. Hierarchy was the answer to what was essentially a communication problem… in the industrial era. As organizations grew a top down systems of communication and power was need to keep every part of the organization informed.

Today we no longer have an excuse for communication problems or at least we shouldn’t. Psychology, sociology and technology are opening our eyes to new, better ways of organizing people. Hierarchy should be being transformed because of the emerging obviousness of Wirearchy, yet this isn’t really happening. And in learning, the principle of 70:20:10 is real but oft ignored as training continues to hold a tight grip.

What then if organizations just focused on improving communication, putting “social” first so to speak? Aligning all, making ideas, initiatives, information more obvious. Would unnecessary training, procedures, and policy diminish? And isn’t this what every small company has by default (albeit unconsciously)? With a small numbers of people, they are in tune, open, connected and transparent – then unfortunately lose it as they grow. This doesn’t have to happen today, as I said, we have the knowledge and technology to ensure this if we could just let go to our traditional beliefs as I did about medicine.

In the 21st century how the organization needs to communicate should determine it’s design and being and remaining aligned is the key to a responsive organization.