Would you buy a plain bottle of water from a street vendor with nothing more than the word “Water” hand-written on it?
No; you’d want to see some proof of compliance with systems, maybe some chemical analysis, a brand name, a website, a phone number – something. Without that, you wouldn’t trust the water.
But suppose your brother-in-law offered you a plain glass of water while you were at his house watching the football games with the family. Would you grill him about the provenance of the water? Refuse to drink it unless you were shown evidence of a chemical analysis? Insist on seeing the original bottle, or an analysis of his home tap water?
The question raised here is, “When do you need a system in place to create trust?” And the best way to figure it out is to use a few examples and make a few distinctions.
First, you need to clarify whether a) you’re trying to to decide when to take a risk and trust others, or b) you’re trying to be trusted by others – to be trustworthy. Let’s take them in order.
When do you need a system to trust others? Consider a convenience store chain that once consulted me. They had a problem with store manager turnover.
As it turned out, they gave store managers a lie detector test every month, because they didn’t trust them not to steal. The result was predictable. After several months of being told, in effect, your employer doesn’t trust you and will treat you like a felon on parole, the average store manager decided to try living down to expectations, and stole. They would often get caught, and then the store manager turnover rate would go up. Rinse and repeat.
When not to use a system? When it is insulting to people, because their dignity is at stake.
On the other hand, consider airport security systems. We put up with a remarkable amount of expense, time, and depersonalization as we’re forced to stand in line for the privilege of being semi-strip-searched. Why? Because being treated as part of a system ensures a sense of fairness to all.
When to use a system? When the benefits (fairness, mutual security, collective good) outweigh the costs of not being treated as individuals.
Being Trusted by Others
Turning now to being trustworthy, when do we need a system to help others trust us? Let’s start with the nature of trustworthiness: it is partly “hard” (credibility, reliability) and partly “soft” (a sense of intimacy, emotional intelligence, empathy, other-orientation). Both are necessary.
If someone doesn’t know us at all, they’ll often look first to the “hard” data. You don’t know the street vendor selling you water, so you demand hard proof. But you do know your brother-in-law: meaning, you know he means you nothing but good, you’ve got history (and a future) with him, you know he’s a good person, and so on. In such a case, you presume the hard data because you have soft data.
This explains why con men always go for the “soft” skills. Consider Bernie Madoff. He had credentials, but his main entrée seems to have been his social standing, his way with others, his connections.
Systems are well-suited to reinforcing “hard” data about trust. They are less well-suited to reinforcing “soft” data. For example, we react negatively to those scripted service lines in all-too-many phone support systems: “Your call is very important to us,” “I’m so sorry and I do apologize for that difficulty,” or “I hope I’ve been able to provide excellent service to you today.” Systems can feel insincere to the recipients, and even backfire.
When to use a system? When you’e trying to reinforce “hard” data about trustworthiness, or when the “soft” data is complex enough and new enough that a systematic approach is required for a time. When not to? When the customer really would prefer a personal touch.
The best rule of thumb? Put yourself in the shoes of the customer, and ask how you would feel about the presence or absence of a system for trust. That may sound trivial – it’s not. Our skills at empathizing are very powerful, if we but remember to deploy them.