We can never really know someone else’s intention. Any person’s motive is internal to the person. It’s in the mind. All we can do is observe their behavior—what they do, how they look, what they say out loud.
It is in our nature, however, to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and to ascribe motives to people based on what we see them do. We know what goes on in our own minds, we know what our intentions would be if we were doing these things, and so we hypothesize about what must be going through someone else’s mind to account for their actions. When we trust someone’s intentions, we’re really just making our own judgment based on their behavior. It may sound like a circular argument, but Henry Stimson had it exactly right when he said:
The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. –Henry Stimson
Nor should it be a surprise that two different people, evaluating the exact same behavior in someone else, might make different judgments. Only a mind reader can be 100 percent confident when the subject involves someone else’s intentions.
We make the same judgment calls when it comes to assessing the businesses we buy from, the companies we work for, and most other organizations we deal with. As Seth Godin has pointed out in several of his books, a “company” doesn’t really have intentions at all, because a company has no mind of its own. But this doesn’t stop us from viewing a company’s behavior through our own anthropomorphic lens, and asking ourselves what we would intend if we were to take the same actions. This lens may not explain how things actually happen in the world, but as a logical shortcut most of us still find it useful. And since we can’t know someone else’s actual intent anyway, the shortcut costs us nothing.
But this also means that no if no actions can be observed, there will be no basis on which customers can judge a company to be trustable. There is an important lesson here for companies trying to figure out how to appear more trustable to customers, so as to compete more successfully with other companies: In order to look trustable you must put on a human face. You have to behave in a way that demonstrates empathy, and this means your managers and employees have to behave this way. When thinking about customers, try thinking about them as your partners in a relationship that benefits both of you. When you make decisions for your company, you must ask yourself: what action would a friend take toward a friend in this situation, and is there any reason your company shouldn’t proceed this way?
Rajendra S. Sisodia, David B. Wolfe, and Jagdish N. Sheth, authors of the book Firms of Endearment, suggest that one important aspect of demonstrating your firm’s essential humanity is not to shy away from showing vulnerability when that’s appropriate. We don’t normally expect companies to talk frankly about their own problems, or to admit to their own vulnerabilities. Nor can we blame companies for being reluctant to do so, because exposing a weakness in the wrong context can sometimes lead directly to a lawsuit. But as direct interactions between companies and consumers increase in number, with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other mechanisms, consumers have shown an increasing willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to those companies that do show a more “human” face to their customers.
Arguing that a willingness to admit error and take responsibility is absolutely essential to the idea of transparency, the Firms of Endearment authors admit that in most companies the legal department, and probably the PR folks, will be dead-set against it. Nevertheless, if you want others to participate in a genuine, empathetic dialogue—if you want to demonstrate your company’s trustability—then it’s essential to be vulnerable. Hiding your vulnerability reduces your stakeholders’ willingness to show theirs, greatly diminishing the authenticity and value of any interaction or dialogue.
There’s a bonus to putting on a human face. When you do, your employees will be proud to be part of your organization. Your employee turnover will go down, since your employees, for the most part, prefer to do things in a trustable way, and as you expect them to behave more trustably toward customers, your employees will trust your company more.
So not only will you have a more competitive and successful company, you’ll have a better company.
Excerpt with permission from the upcoming book Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.