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Passion, People and Principles

The Undiscussed Side of Trust

post # 381 — May 30, 2007 — a Client Relations post

Three things came together in the past week or so that caused me to reflect on what we know about trust.

First, I was reading in The Economist an article on immigration which pointed out that, throughout history and throughout the world, people like to associate with those with whom they have a lot in common.

That’s why, The Economist argued, immigrants from the same country tend to move (at least initially) to the same cities and regions where previous immigrants from their origin have gone. Just as there are Bangladeshi areas in certain British towns, Irish in Boston and Russians in Brooklyn.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, no, but in the same week I received an email from someone in an eastern European country who asked: “Do you think the principles of trust that you and your co-authors described in the Trusted Advisor apply in Eastern Europe? Rather than the factors of credibility, reliability intimacy and lack of self-orientation that you write about, trust in my country basically boils down to whether or not you come from the same village as I do. Or at least the same region.”

The third thing that happened is that I was sent an email about a blog by Carmen van Kerkhove, who argued that, essentially, many diversity trainers in business focus on all the wrong things. One of her most telling points is that by trying to teach people how to be “sensitive” to other races, genders and religions, the training actually just trains people how to hide their racism — it doesn’t stop them being racist, just how to not show it!

I’m really not equipped to be a moralist, but there’s some complicated stuff going on here.

Sometimes, we work hard to be race-, gender, religion- and class-blind. The, at other times, we are all “realists” and recognize that, very often, people like to deal with people who are like them. We call it “comfort”, “chemistry”, “connection.”

For example, when we strive to create diverse firms in order to appeal to diverse buyers (female partners to go after female clients, people of color to “penetrate” the ethnic community they come from) we are trading on the (apparently universal) tendency of people to prefer dealing with people like themselves.

There seems to be an aspect of how we as humans come to trust that is inherently “racist.” OF COURSE, it’s not just Caucasian males who can be racist in trusting people who are like them. People of all nationalities, genders and religious background do it ALL the time — not just occasionally, but (it would appear) as the default position! Global literature and movies from any age would be only a microscopic fraction of what they are if we eliminated dramas based on star-crossed lovers whose families do not want them to marry because they come from different backgrounds.

If all this makes you uncomfortable (as it does me) there’s still some hope. People like interacting with and TRUST people with whom they have a lot in common, when there’s no other evidence. “Being like us” (ie the class-ist, racist, religious, gender-biased starting default position) can, it seems, be overcome by just being more trustworthy than others. Credibility, reliability, intimacy and lack of self-orientation DO matter.

But let’s not fool ourselves about what a large portion of the world actually uses to base their trust judgments on. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to acknowledge and deal with it.


Steve Kelner said:

Dear David,

This is a fascinating issue, and certainly merits more discussion. I think the case can certainly be made that your principles apply anywhere — but that what those labels mean may differ from person to person! Being “credible” may indeed mean “being from the same village” because no one else is allowed to be credible in that person’s worldview. I remember appraising three top consultive salespeople, one Chinese, one a British ex-military man, one a brash self-made New Jerseyite. Their styles were different, but their fundamental competencies and approaches to the client were the same. A lot of this, I think, is being able to distinguish competencies from style or culture.

Best, Steve Kelner

posted on May 30, 2007

Carmen Van Kerckhove said:

David, thanks very much for linking to my post on why diversity training doesn’t work.

> when we strive to create diverse firms in order to appeal to diverse buyers (female partners to go after female clients, people of color to “penetrate” the ethnic community they come from) we are trading on the (apparently universal) tendency of people to prefer dealing with people like themselves.

It’s true that so many firms believe in this — what Harvard’s David Thomas calls the “access and legitimacy” model of diversity.

But that model can actually result in discrimination. Just look at the recent lawsuit filed against Bank of America by a group of African-American employees:

“the suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that many African-American employees in the bank and its investment division were largely partnered only with others of the same race and were disproportionately sent “to sales territories which are largely minority and/or low net worth. This practice has significantly and adversely impacted the job success, career, and income of plaintiffs and the class,” the suit states, and also makes reference to “subjective decision-making by a predominantly Caucasian management structure.””

It’s quite possible that B of A thought they were doing a good thing by “matching” black customers with black employees, but by doing that they actually limited the career prospects of those employees.

posted on May 30, 2007

Stephanie West Allen said:

Such an interesting topic, David. Are you aware of the phenomenon of homophily? Many Web sites can be found in a Google search. Basically it is the well-researched “birds of a feather.”

The article “The Workplace Dilemma” by Ray Haines begins:

Approximately 12 years ago my company developed and implemented a traditional diversity training program based on the multicultural principle that all people and all cultures are of equal value. This meant that people of one culture should not judge people of another culture; instead they should seek to know and understand them. The end result would eliminate all prejudice, bias, discrimination and harassment. The diversity training was oriented toward understanding cultural differences and attempted to change personal values and belief systems.

After two years I found that this approach was flawed and through research realized that it is more realistic to have people change their behavior than their belief system. It is hoped that eventually the belief system will follow the behavior. With this new premise I co-authored, Discrimination, Harassment, and the Failure of Diversity Training and What to Do Now. The book contains a program designed to teach relationship skills to employees of an organization in order to keep discrimination and harassment at a minimum.

I have read Haines’s book and like the approach he briefly mentions above.

posted on May 31, 2007

Peter Macmillan said:

A real issue in Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland is not being able to trust anything or anyone. We have more pirate copies of DVDs than probably anywhere else (even of movies still in the cinemas), fake jewelry and watches are common fare, fake LV handbags are becoming a must-have accessory in themselves, and the list goes on and on.

We even have to think twice about the eggs we eat (sometimes they’re injected with cancer-causing chemicals to make the yokes more yellow) or which noodles to buy (sometimes they’re washed in acid to make them white!).

It’s a little bit like the Internet where you don’t really know what can be believed or who can be trusted. And like the Internet, our culture creates proxies to authenticate a source of advice, information or goods so we can have greater confidence in it.

Hence the popularity of family businesses in Chinese culture (everyone knows each other – some times trusted people will vouch for others and sometimes guarantee their performance – and blood is supposed to be thicker than water etc.) Perhaps this is like the concept of people coming from the same home town (another big plus in developing relationships in China).

The other key mechanism for doing business is through introductions by trusted middle-men (or women) whose relationships with each of the party’s separately helps to bond the two sides together.

Big brand stores are often more popular amongst local shoppers than amongst tourists in Hong Kong. Local people have learned to trust brands (proxies), and if lots of people go there it must be good! For instance, the jewelry store Chow Tai Fook is really the only place to go if you want to get pure gold jewelry, and their company stamp on a piece of gold will be respected everywhere. CTF is, needless to say, an institution in Hong Kong and children learn from parents it’s the place to buy gold (something you don’t want to muck up!).

Perhaps the key concept is reducing risk by staying as close as possible to what or who you consider trustworthy. From there you can inch your way into new areas, but always with one hand holding on to the security of a relationship or positive past experience. In terms of professional services in Hong Kong, the same group of people often feel comfortable choosing the same lawyers, accountants and consultants. Similarly, once a firm falls out of favour, a large number of their clients may leave en masse as they talk amongst themselves as to where to go next!

posted on June 1, 2007

Dennis Howlett said:

This is a dangerous topic yet one I cannot resist commenting upon. While studying social psychology as part of my degree, it struck me is that as human beings, we are inherently suspicious and afraid of anything we don’t understand. Different classes, cultures, creed, colour – it matters not.

Recognising that as a universal truth (which of course can be argued – what do I say about people like Gandhi for instance?) is critical to tackling the issue. It is not a matter of morality or ethics but a matter of facing facts.

So for example, I would argue that white people are inherently racist if you use the definition that relates to a specific prejudice towards black people.

Once that is recognised then it becomes a question of seeing which attitudes and beliefs contribute to the way we behave. At a subtle level that could be condescension. Or it could be more overt.

I am fortunate in that I am part of a mixed race family. They teach me plenty about what it is to live in a group where there are four different cultures in play and three different colours. It doesn’t make solving the puzzle any easier, but at least I get insights into what it means to live within cultures that are different.

I have no pat answers but on one thing I am agreed with your other correspondents – forced ‘integration’ is a recipe for disaster – however well intentioned.

posted on June 4, 2007

Charles H. Green said:

David raises a great point. We often think of “trust” as an unalloyed positive, a great social virtue, and so forth.

The truth is, it is simply a human phenomenon. It is inherently value-neutral, and can be used for great good or great harm.

Con-men and hustlers know full well how to exploit trust. Part of the knowledge we gain growing up in the world is about who to trust, and who not to trust.

Discrimination is but one of the areas where we find the dynamics of trust to be manifested. Like Dennis, I’ve had some experience in a multi-racial environment, and I too believe “it becomes a question of seeing which attitudes and beliefs contribute to the way we behave.” Changing behaviors alone makes for a civil society, but deeper change requires getting at the belief systems; and that starts with understanding.

So does trust in general. The ability to see the other side, to empathize, to “get” how another views the world, is why we use “those like us” as shorthand for trust; we use things like social and racial backgrounds as indicators, markers of those who are likely to understand us.

The real art in trusting is recognizing trustworthiness as an inherent part of another, apart from the indicator-markers of things like race. And the real art of being trusted is to reach out past those indicator-markers and connect with another.

But there is no guarantee for motives. It’s hard to fake trust; it’s hard to encrypt software too. That doesn’t mean there aren’t shysters and code-breakers out there.

posted on June 5, 2007

Galba Bright said:

To understand migration patterns of immigrants in England, for example, one also needs to understand that discriminatory housing policies have historically influenced settlement patterns. An example is the “red-lining” policies that discriminated against mortgage applicants from immigrant communities. One needs to see immigration settlement patterns as a dynamic interaction between organisation policy (both formal and informal) and the immigrant groups’ response.

Diversity is a difficult issue. An organisation needs to be clear about what it wants to achieve. Justice and equality are different objectives than seeking to have a racial group well represented in a customers’ workforce or customer base. Race and colour are obvious identifiers. Yet racial groups are not necessarily homogenous. I agree that trust is necessarily subjective. However, the internet has the potential to create greater trust and affiliation across races because it has the potential to reward content that content that is deemed to have merit. It comes down to individuals becoming conscious of their world view and deciding whether they are comfortable basing their actions on these perceptions.

posted on June 10, 2007