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.

…But Some Managers Are More Equal Than Others

You may remember the famous line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others“. The idea is that some roles in organizations are more important than others in operating the business (a farm in this case). Today, many organizational leaders often carry the same titles across the business, i.e Manager, Managing Director, Sr. Vice President of…, etc. (as that’s convenient) but truly they are not seen or treated as equals. A manager in an operations role, one close to the work being done, one where revenue is made or lost is considered far superior in the eyes of the C-Suite than a L&D manager. And they all know it too.

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L&D Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Yes, yes I know that many have said L&D shouldn’t be threatened by social and social technology. The argument being that a focus on social can actually improve L&D efforts by extending formal learning impact which is true and many in L&D leadership have made progress… but many more have not and only play lip service to the notion (I know, I’ve lived it). L&D has traditionally argued against social technology on the grounds that people will share the wrong information. But there is another reality and maybe the real truth behind the dismissing. At the end of the day, L&D does just what the executives want, a course. And when numerous employees have taken the course and then do not really perform any better, the blame is more often than not placed on the employees and not the solution.

The reason for this? A fine blend of two ingredients at the management level; the leadership echo chamber and a heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. Systems->Behaviors->Culture.

First, the echo. Executives build inner circles; a cushion of trust that, over time, membership in grants one the benefit of every doubt. The next is cognitive dissonance; the reconciliation of two competing beliefs where placing blame upon the employees is chosen over the idea that monetary investments in technology and “expertise’ was wasted. Both result simply in – It’s got to be them, not us.

“Look at all the work we did.”
“Look at the features and functions we built. You (boss) liked them.”
“You (boss) agreed with them.”
“The employees didn’t invest the time.”
“They chose to ignore the content.”
“They didn’t revisit the material.”
“It’s their fault.”

But the jig is up.

Like we have always known, social technology opens things up. Social technology leads to transparency. Social technology can challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take too many voices openly sharing comments about ineffectiveness to upend the whole game. More often than not though the channel directly to the employees is either too long and narrow, blocked by protective layers of hierarchy, and/or hindered by a culture of complacency. That’s a lot but still L&D, or rather traditional training-centric L&D, should be afraid of social technology, it’s permeating the organization. Once executives understand that social for social’s sake has value (which many vendors have abandoned) it will open the doors to the boardroom to all and change will be swift.

Social Carves Its Own Path

Thousands of people recently commented (most agreeing) with a post on LinkedIn about how awful it was that posts on LinkedIn were no longer business related. Oh the irony.

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They were upset that LinkedIn was being used like Facebook; status updates and photos of the non-work related type dominating their network updates. (Huh, maybe it’s just what Microsoft wanted though?)

Let’s step out of the social platform mindset for a moment and return to just being social, sans tools. In my experience, as yours, the majority of business setting conversations don’t have much to do with the business. The sports talk, the sarcastic joke, the quick verbal jab, the nod, the wink, the stories of children, parents and pets are not only accepted but expected. This informal conversation is the glue that holds together the formal pieces and this is where LinkedIn conversations are going. For some, LinkedIn has strayed from a place with a distinct purpose. This disturbs them and they will leave. But honestly the “rules” were never there, only expectation and expectations can certainly change faster than rules… and they did.

There is a lesson here for organizational leaders looking to adopt social technology, it is of course a lesson in expectation and rules. It is that social carves its own path. The conversation should not be controlled. Efforts to do so will certainly kill it. It’s movement, like that of water, is critical for survival. Healthy social is natural and unchanneled, for if the sharing and conversation were strictly business related and devoid of the elements that truly unite people, form trust, and build relationships, organizations would ultimately suffer in areas of innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

It’s important to note that people connect with people, not content and that all conversations in business is the conversation of business.

Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy

Over that last few months a local workshop for non-profits has been gathering weekly. Around 80 people from various organizations are involved. The hosts invited everyone early on to join Slack to apparently be leveraged between live sessions and carry on the dialog (I say apparently as this was not actually articulated).

After several weeks, 10 people have posted once… each. Three of the 10 were the hosts. It’s a ghost town. Go figure.

This isn’t really about Slack though…but it is. You see, Slack is often chosen because it’s free and it’s supposed to be simple and fun. It’s the gold standard for chat today. Every start-up is running to it – the “email killer”. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone or every situation and simple and fun doesn’t equate to adoption, that my friends is a people issue. But an even bigger problem than this group failing to connect with Slack is that many will walk away blaming the tool.

The reaction by this group is inevitably one of Slack is stupid. And for many that’s it, the social soup is spoiled. Wrong tool, wrong reason (if any reason), poor planning, poor implementation, and poor support. Bolting it on and flicking the switch works for very little with the exception of an electric light. Many will leave this half-baked effort viewing all enterprise social tools and efforts as pointless voids and frustrating time wastes. So next time the opportunity arises, it will likely be met with a “oh yeah, we tried social media. It didn’t work” response, making sincere efforts all the more difficult due to the often impenetrable wall of first impressions.

This is ultimately a failure of expectation, or a failure because there was an expectation that connection, conversation and collaboration are easy because you’ve employed simple technology.  Thanks to all who leap before they look…

Just because the tools are getting simpler to use, more natural, and common place and even with a lot of fun buzz and hype – it doesn’t mean it’s going to “work” out of the box. It is still and always will be people and purpose, trust and not technology that drives the social engine.