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Passion, People and Principles

How to be Intimate

post # 114 — June 21, 2006 — a Client Relations, Managing post

Brad Farris writes in to ask:

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, The Trusted Advisor

I have used Trusted Advisor in my work for several years. The Reliability and Credibility factors you talk about there have always seemed like “table stakes” to me. The third component, A Low Self-interest, is sometimes less obvious, but once considered is equally non-controversial. The fourth factor, Intimacy, is always the one that gets people hung up. “Why intimacy?” they ask, “Why do we need that?”

What things would you recommend that companies of any size can do to be more intimate with their customers, employees and community? If you are a company who needs scale to survive, is it a given that you have to leave intimacy and trust behind?

For me, the secret to the ‘intimacy’ aspect of trust, whether dealing inside or outside an organization, is the simple act of getting out of role-to-role interactions, and making them encounters between real people. In other words, treat me like a person, not an ‘employee’ or a ‘customer.’

Viewed this way, the issue of creating intimacy is less one of systems, procedures and processes, than it is one of attitude and style. The famous examples are the cabin attendants and pilots of Southwest Airlines, who (according to their reputation) can make announcements conveying serious information but with humor, personality and individualism, proving that you don’t have to be robotic, bureaucratic or rule-driven to get something done. And Southwest is one of the largest airlines out there. It’s all about attitudes, mentality, empowerment, self image, and keeping things in proportion.

As I’ve written many times (and never tire of preaching) it’s the RULES that grind us all down, and they tend to accumulate and take over when organizations grow. If managers only focused on WHAT needs to be done (superbly), and WHY it needs to be done (superbly), then they could empower and trust the front-line staff to figure out for themselves HOW to do it. And if, as a staff memeber, I can then do it MY way, I’m going to make it more real, more human and more intimate for both the customers and for myself.

cover of David Maister's book, 'Practice What You Preach'

What about the effects of scale? In my book Practice What You Preach, I studied 139 businesses analyzing the relationship between attitudes and financial results. While there were examples of great intimacy (‘human scale’) the overall trends were a clear decline with scale. In larger offices in general, people did, indeed, give lower scores to such things as:

  • Management valuing input
  • Management listening to people
  • Management being trusted
  • Management practicing what they preached
  • Management being successful in fostering communication and loyalty

These all declined with larger offices, even though I was able to prove that doing well on these things was a significant predictor of better financial results.

In addition to my statistics, the book contains portraits of nine of the highest-performing businesses I could find in my database. I interviewed not only the managers, but many other people who worked in these nine office.

One of the absolutely fascinating outcomes was that, in line with your question, everyone was worried that they could only achieve their level of excellence because they were ‘small’ and had a strong sense of community and purpose – or, if you prefer, intimacy. But this reaction was expressed by offices that had over 300 people!

This convinced me that creating a sense of intimacy is a managerial phenomenon, not one simply determined by scale. It can be achieved by managers who know how to manage.

So what did the ‘great’ managers do to overcome the effect of size? None of it was very dramatic. Most of the (hundreds) of specific messages are contained at the end of the book could be summed up as “Be human and never forget that we are, too.”

Some specific advice to managers in the book?

  • Do your own photocopying occasionally. Wash your own cup
  • Don’t hesitate to jump in and help and prove you’ve still got it
  • Keep a level emotional keel, don’t over-react to either triumphs or disasters
  • Take work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously
  • Treat people as adults
  • Let people know you as a human being, not just as their manager
  • Believe in, and keep the faith with what we are doing

At the risk of repetitiousness, I must stress that these lessons from the book are NOT that these are ‘nice-to-have’ behaviors, but that they are EXACTLY what the managers of the financially highest performing businesses in my database do.


Duncan Bucknell said:

Hi David

Perhaps one way to think of this is:

“If you actually care about the people you work with (be they clients or members of your team etc), I guarantee that you will be truly amazed at the results you will get. Not only from a professional / managerial / financial perspective, but from a personal one as well.”

On a personal note, a lot of people comment to me that my current work in separate professions (veterinarian and lawyer / IP strategy consultant) must be worlds apart. Actually they are very similar, and this aspect has been a hallmark of my success in both areas.

Best regards


PS – if you don’t care? Go and do something you care about for (or with) people you can care about. Life’s too short to live like that.

posted on June 21, 2006

Bill Peper said:

To amplify David and Duncan’s observations, creating intimacy is not mutually exclusive with a growing or large business. Here are some starter recommendations

1. Create an environment of recognition and appreciation. Bob Nelson’s work in this area, non-cash recognition ideas, is useful. See this book, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees

2. Schedule time to develop relationships with direct reports and clients. The best conversation to develop intimacy often take place after or before scheduled meetings.

3. Take the time to remember as many names as possible, as well something about that person. If you do not care enough to learn and remember someone’s name and facts about that person, you do not care enough. As St. Francis once said, “Preach the Gospel always, even using words if necessary.”

4. Remain open to creating intimate relationships with people you encounter. People, especially successful business executives, delude themselves into thinking that they can fake intimacy. People have an excellence sense of whether another person is genuine.

On a recent vacation, I watched my son create intimate relationships instantly with the question, “Hi, I am Nick. Want to play?” We all still possess the power to create those kind of relationships, but it requires the possibility of occasional rejection and some effort on our parts.

posted on June 21, 2006

Eric Boehme said:


It is really refreshing to hear that your research clearly demonstrated that companies perform better when you have people treating people like people.

I like Duncan’s comment about a genuine concern for your co-workers. People know when someone is genuine. We are professionals and human beings.

The Golden Rule is constantly being validated.


posted on June 21, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Like everybody else, I had to learn these lessons the hard way. When I hired my first (and basically only) full-time employee (Julie MacDonald O’Leary) it was not my natural predisposition to “get personal.” My preferred style would have been to remain role-to-role “Here’s your job specs, here’s how I’ll evaluate your performance, etc.”

I quickly learned however, that if I wanted Julie to throw herself passionately into making my business succeed, I had to move out of role and show an interest in her as a person, and reveal myself as a person.

This wasn’t only a moral lesson (The Golden Rule) or a political lesson (be nice to people, it’s the left-wing liberal thing to do) but a simple, practical business lesson; people respond and perform better when they are treated as people, not as “instruments of the business.”

Part of our tragedy as a business culture is that you can’t discuss these issues without appearing like a “wimp.” In too many people’s minds, being sensitive to and understaanding how people work, and what they respond to, is seen as a separate, distinct topic to that of making money.

My whole mission with my work is to try and provide the logic, the inspiration and the DATA that says “being good with people” and “making money” aren’t opposites – they go hand in hand; one is the way to the other.

I wish I were more successful in conveying this message and getting people to act as if they believed it. But the truth is that logic, inspiration and data are not (it appears) enough (yet) to overcome a great deal of pre-conditioning that says “business is about money and all other topics are distractions.”

posted on June 21, 2006

Brad Farris said:


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I was not familiar with “Practice What You Preach”, but it sounds like I need to run out and get a copy.

I’m especially thinking about people who did not operate from a role, but were human and more themselves. When I think back to my best managers & mentors they all did just that.

Thanks again.

posted on June 21, 2006

Ahmet Dogramaci said:

Hi David,

Can the problem be short-sightedness? To get results from trust takes longer and in a business environment of quarterly results, people do not want to do the investment, unfortunately. I am also wondering whether private companies are doing better than public ones in terms of treating people “right”.

posted on June 22, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I received this quote by e-mail this morning. It applies to this conversation about business success, as well as every aspect of life:

“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster. Your life will never be the same again.” —Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World

posted on June 22, 2006

Eric Boehme said:


When I referenced the “Golden Rule” I did not mean it in a moral sense in this discussion. Although I believe it is a moral statement, it also states the essence of what you are trying to say I think.

Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Isn’t that at the very core of relationships?

I want to be validated, so I validate those who I work with.

I want to feel valued, so I value those who I work with.

I want to be respected, so I respect those I work with.

Make sense?

posted on June 22, 2006

Artem said:

Tell me please, David, where can I buy your books? And of course I want to buy it online, if I can… Thank you.

posted on September 20, 2007