Sunday, August 23, 2009

Competent, Reliable, OPEN and Principled

Musings from David Farrar, Managing Partner of Koliso

My speaking agent recently brought to me an opportunity to do a presentation for a well-known manufacturer and installer of communications and IT solutions. It should have been a great chance to work with a leader in IT, and an industry I know and like from doing many other presentations and consulting projects. Unfortunately I had to tell her I wouldn’t work with this organization.

Some time ago I sat with the regional manager of the company to discuss a market research project he was starting up. He wanted to find out what his biggest clients were saying about his business, and he wanted to invite their local general managers in for a series of informal “focus groups.” I had been called in to discuss with him how to connect with the clients and get them engaged in the project.

Things were going well until we started to discuss the records we would keep. Our plan was to take notes, anonymize the feedback, and present it to the client in a grouped report with the major themes highlighted and recommendations for action. The client wanted the verbatim feedback. We pointed out that taping and transcribing would be time consuming, and besides, people often aren’t as candid when they know they are being recorded.

To our astonishment the regional manager said we didn’t have to tell them they were being recorded!

I think he had watched one too many episodes of Law and Order or something similar. He thought he could set up a room with a two-way mirror, watch and record the proceedings and use the material as feedback for his staff.

I’ve written before on trust, and how important it is to maintaining any relationship. There are four key elements to trust. People who are trustworthy are:

  • Capable: Can do what they say
  • Reliable: Will do what they say
  • Open: Will say what they do
  • Principled: Will do what they should

When it comes to trust, like a crop, you reap what you sow.

Unfortunately, when it came to being trustworthy this regional manager badly failed the third criteria. He wasn’t open; he wouldn’t say what he was going to do. The most generous interpretation of what happens when people don’t say what they do is that they run the risk of being misunderstood, which doesn’t build trust. The least generous view of people who are closed, guarded or subtly misleading is that they won’t say what they do because you wouldn’t approve. Certainly there are times when we are less than open because we are preserving confidentiality, or being sensitive to over communicating what others are not interested in. Generally though, it’s better to err on the side of being overly open rather than overly closed.

In this case I wouldn’t be a part of what I considered to be lying to those clients who came in to participate in the focus group. Sure, if we were being technical we could have set things up so that the clients would never know they were being recorded, and provided we never promised we weren’t going to record them. Nevertheless, this sort of thing leaves a very bad impression with me. People should say what they do.

In my ethics classes with graduate students I often express this a different way: What would you be proud to see widely reported in the papers or on the internet? What would you be ashamed to see reported? I don’t think the regional manager would be proud to see his actions widely reported. I don’t think it would build a sense of community with his customers.

Life is too short to spend with people who you’re not proud to spend time with. I’m glad I’m not pursuing this particular speaking opportunity.

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