Publication: One-to-One, Autumn 2009
In September 19, 1985, 7:17a.m., millions of Mexico City’s residents awoke to the ground undulating beneath them, for five agonizing minutes, tall buildings swayed uncontrollably, crashing into one another while the city’s infrastructure ripped apart. Mexico City had suffered and 8.1 magnitude earthquake, felt as far away as Los Angeles and Houston, resulting in thousands of destroyed homes and buildings and an estimated 10,000 deaths.
Earthquakes are great metaphors for crises of all kinds. While an earthquake manifests abruptly, we know there are preceding hidden events that fester underneath the surface before its culmination. When the shaking reaches the ground beneath our feet, we seek out the unshakable. When it’s over, only that which is trustworthy remains.
Politicians, corporate executives, and even religious leaders seem to faithfully provide us a “crisis du jour”. Morning coffee and an “earthquake” have become our breakfast combo. One fees our energy, the other our cynicism. On our increasingly interconnected world, we’re all moving closer to the epicenter of each quake. We are positioned, at a minimum, to feel the tremors and aftershocks from each seismic event while losing confidence in what is perceived untrustworthy.
We are witnesses to the casual snuffing out of trust in what were once bedrock sectors of society. Should we be surprised that emerging generations perceive politics as corrupt, business as evil, and church representatives as hypocrites? We’ve put ourselves on a course that automatically labels those in positions of trust as untrustworthy.
As if this wasn’t enough to sort through, our savvy media outlets whip up “breaking news” drama to interrupt their regularly produced drama, complete with swooshing audio/visual effects to make sure they have our undivided attention before announcing the breakup of a Hollywood couple. Modern media promotes trust’s erosion through salacious, agenda-driven, over-covered incidents that are packaged in mind-numbing gimmicks in-between commercials that pry at our last buck.
TRUST LOST COSTS
Low-trust environments suffer jacked-up costs of doing business. Untrusting environments produce a decline in sustainability; likewise, unsustainable environments egg on a loss of trust. Consider the time and fees spent on creating “iron-clad” contracts versus building relationships.
Consider the effects of a low-trust atmosphere on employee retention/attrition or the brand value. Consider the inefficiency of second-guessing hidden agendas and political navigation versus the ability to make quick decisions.
Landscapes of distrust are like mine fields; they bog us down causing casualties and a wavering advance. Meanwhile, competitors with agility and speed take the edge.
People don’t primarily trust institutional entities, they trust other people.
Consider Bernie Madoff, the author of the largest “Ponzi scheme” this side of Social Security. Bernie was thought to have the “Magic touch” as an investor, offering the sustainability of double-digit returns. Even those closest to Madoff saw a kind and honorable man; a loving father and husband; generous to his employees and charities. Fellow investors saw, a wise elder statesman who invested client’s money with minimal risk.
Perhaps the most surprising part of his story is the length of time his fraud went undiscovered. Like the earthquake that no one predicted, suddenly investors with Madoff found their ground shaking and discovered they had traded their life savings for a pile of lies.
BRINGING TRUST BACK – PULLING THE TRIGGER
Besides eroding trust and destroying lives, what effect are our modern-day business scandals having? Do they serve as ethics course material for college credit and a fancy diploma on the wall? Are we merely sharpening talents as master illusionists instead of masters in our calling? Will we attain the wisdom of George Costanza who once said, “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it”.
We are accountable for what has been entrusted to us. For our business, this means more than a BBB sticker on the window or a mission statement that makes our employees giggle. Scriptures tell us that trustworthy people hate dis· honest gain, refresh the spirit of their masters, brings healing, are trustworthy even in small matters and, like Daniel, are neither corrupt nor negligent.
Sometimes, the most difficult task is to accurately perceive ourselves and our motives. Like the 300lb teacher of a weight loss seminar, the terry cloth seat suit doesn’t serve as credentials. Trust evokes more than rhetoric that is at best a pep talk with no real consequences.
Taking personal inventory is a painful process, but self-confidence without self-awareness leads to self-destruction. You’ve probably heard the quote “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” It is healthy to regularly ask ourselves how our trustworthiness is rated by our colleagues, our employees, our vendors, and our boss. Everyone wants to be trusted, but trust is not static. Trust’s measurement ebbs and flows with our consistency and the congruency of our words and deeds.
Striving for trust and neglecting character becomes manipulation. Trust is really a byproduct of our character. Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway says, “I look for three things when hiring people. The first is personal integrity. The second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”
A favorite axiom of Ronald Reagan was “Trust but verify.” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once told him “You repeat that at every meeting,” to which Reagan answered, “I like it.” Ironically, this saying originated from a Russian proverb which probably made Reagan enjoy it all the more. Perhaps this needs to be our approach today with ourselves and those with whom we need to rebuild trust.
When we take personal inventory and discover that we’ve become the guy in the sweat suit, it is difficult to know where to begin to make changes. To save us from lengthy pontification and analysis, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan authors of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, offer this approach: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting, we act ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
No matter the environment, trust is fragile, easily vanquished. Nothing can undermine your business more completely than lack of trust. The world is watching to see how being a follower of Christ affects our businesses. Will we demonstrate that where we are more than astute magicians? Will we withstand the earthquakes? Will we give opportunity for trust to be rebuilt?
JONATHAN SIMPSON is a frequent contributing writer to CSM’s Marketplace Exchange.