By Brian Van Bower
The Harvard Business Review recently published results of an interesting survey: Overall, they said, some 75 percent of those contacted reported diminishing trust in U.S. business managers and their companies; moreover, their faith in educational institutions, product suppliers and government is on the decline as well – but not to quite such an extent.
It all seems gloomy and pessimistic, but I couldn’t be surprised by the findings. In fact, I can even imagine things being much worse, because for some time I’ve been observing an unfortunate trend in which we, as a people, have permitted our society to become one in which trust is almost a lost virtue and cynicism has become the norm.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but on too many levels, it’s reached a point where many of us simply do not trust other people – and are even more distrustful of institutions and organizations. What’s developed instead is a world in which there’s an almost perverse value placed on “getting yours” from someone else, no matter the means or the consequences.
ALL AROUND US
This condition is so pervasive and crept up on us so gradually that I can only hope this explains why we haven’t done a better job of recognizing it. This is why, for example, we’ve come to expect and accept the fact that large corporations seem to swindle the public and their own employees with such regularity; that the government so easily misleads us about the costs and ramifications of its programs; and that politicians make big promises and invariably fail to deliver on them while seeming to feather their own nests.
We’ve all been scammed so repeatedly that, sadly, we seem to be getting accustomed to it.
Some would say that, as a result, we’ve come by our current cynicism justifiably, but the upshot of this trend is that too many of us start from the premise that that the vast majority of the people around us have loose relationships with the truth and are always looking out for their own interests. That’s just the way it is, they say, in a dog-eat-dog world.
For all that, I remember a time when running a small business meant that your best intention was to provide value to clients by operating from a foundation of knowledge, hard work and reliability. Now, however, all too often I hear candid admissions that business today is all about finding people you can exploit – and ways of doing so that involve the least effort and the greatest profit.
I also remember a time when bankruptcy was an unacceptable outcome, a personal disaster of massive proportions rather than something openly promoted as a solution to all sorts of financial woes. Thirty years ago, the idea that anyone would have to file bankruptcy meant taking on an enduring stigma. Nowadays, it’s the fast, easy way out from under foolishly accumulated debt.
Yes, there are times and situations in which bankruptcy is the right path to take, but it’s reached a point where using it as a means of escaping debt has become so accepted that it’s almost celebrated as a good thing. Personally, I view it as a form of legalized theft – and another in a long list of signs that, as a society, we’re losing our moral compass.
And things have gone so far that suggesting another path (as I am here) and arguing that dignity, quality and value are practical concepts that should govern our working relationships opens a person to being called a Pollyanna and getting dismissed as someone incapable of seeing things as they really are. To the contrary, I think I see things exactly as they are, but I refuse to accept that cutting corners and failing to meet commitments are virtuous behaviors, and I also feel compelled to call things as I see them.
And anyway, how did we reach a point where it’s naïve to believe in integrity, honesty and trust?
Some people who’ve heard me expound on these concepts call me “Mr. Happy” and tell me my optimism about the way the world should run is simply unrealistic.
This stings me occasionally, because nobody really wants to be seen as being unschooled in the ways of the world. But then I consider “reality” from the point of view of those who have accepted cynicism as a guiding principle: Among these are some who are serially embroiled in conflicts with clients, vendors and business contacts and who quite often find themselves as losing-end participants in lawsuits.
Among these cynics (to bring things home) are those watershapers who are constantly on the lookout for fear of running into past clients at shopping malls or in grocery stores.
There’s a brutal irony here: As watershapers, we’re all in the business of providing products that bring combinations of beauty, recreation, relaxation and pride into clients’ lives. Our aim is to create gathering places and sources of family fun. We seek to present clients with all the best life has to offer, but all too often those who create these spaces have proved so untrustworthy that that those clients won’t greet them civilly, let alone as friends.
Certainly, it can be argued that times are tough and that we all need to look out for ourselves. In such business climates, some say, a certain level of chiseling is to be expected – just look at the tolerance for athletes who break drug rules; citizens who cheat on taxes as a first resort; corporations that raid pension funds with impunity; and governments on local, state and national levels that have trouble acting as stewards of the public’s resources.
So cynicism thrives, they say, and who are we to resist a rising tide?
Well, I guess I’m among those who think something should be done. It may sound naïve in this day and age, but I would argue that we can still live our lives and conduct our businesses based on a belief that trusting others and being trusted has value. And I do so partly because I’m weary of listening to those who say that honesty, competence and social integrity are the passé vestiges of an idealism that died long ago.
The fact is, lots of time and effort goes into cheating people, hiding bad intentions and living with lies. I choose an easier path and a different life in which I devote myself to using my time, energy and talent to do my best and deliver honest-to-goodness value.
The best byproduct of this approach is that I enjoy the benefits of being trusted by others and can (for the most part) return the favor by trusting people in return. In doing so, I have enjoyed a wonderful measure of success, have a great time in the process and have reached a point where I can only wonder why so few of us seem to recognize that it’s much easier to follow this high, trustworthy path: I sleep well at night, have lots of friends, enjoy unexpected pleasures when they arise and experience a life led well.
MAKING IT WORK
Of course, there aren’t switches here that you can flip on and off at will.
To trust others, for starters, you must first be worthy of trust yourself. Some might think the opposite is true, but in practice, being trustworthy is what enables you to understand what it takes and, more important, to recognize it in others. And the best thing about running into other trustworthy folks is that it tends to draw you into whole communities where trust has been established as a common value.
We see manifestations of this all the time: There are some people who, because of their actions and their interactions with others, both embody and project integrity and credibility. You see it in the way they move, in the things they choose to say, in the things they choose not to say and, mostly, in how they represent themselves. Sure, there are those who try to fake it, but in my experience, people who carry themselves with the confidence of the trustworthy will (most of the time) turn out to be the real deal.
So what does it take to develop that confidence and come to trust and be trusted?
From a business standpoint, it means delivering what you say you will. That sounds simple, but if it were so easy, there wouldn’t be nearly as much conflict (or so many lawsuits) as we see all around us. The fact of the matter is, too many people over-promise and under-deliver – or just flat out lie to get what they want or where they think they need to be.
My experience and observations lead to a different path on which you reach trustworthiness by constantly striving for excellence: It’s by far the straightest path to being trusted and finding yourself in the company of those you can trust. If you are the very best at what you do, you can approach clients with confidence and honesty and then follow up on the expectations you set without worrying that somewhere along the line that you’ll be found out as a fraud.
If you follow this path, all of a sudden you find yourself in a world filled with colleagues rather than competitors. In fact, when people ask me how I cope with the competition these days, I tell them I don’t need to because nobody out there does exactly what I do. As I see it, I’ve set myself apart by becoming educated and constantly reaching for excellence: In any given situation, I believe I’m the best at delivering what my clients need, and from that point it’s a matter of following through on what I know I can do.
What this requires, of course, is a large measure of honesty with myself and a willingness to think about these issues clearly and objectively. Am I someone who can be trusted? Are there occasions when I’ll compromise and work with those I don’t trust? Do my business practices result in conflicts with clients or other professionals engaged in my projects? Am I honest in these relationships, or do I need to bend the truth from time to time?
I’m brutally honest with myself when it comes to these reflections. Unless you, too, can be completely straightforward in your own reckonings, this whole discussion is futile.
As I see it, taking the time to reflect in this way is critical – and if there’s something positive to be said about the current economic climate, it’s that most of us have been given unprecedented opportunities and more than enough time to examine ourselves and where we stand. So sit down and, as I do frequently, take a hard look at yourself and your business and determine for yourself if you’re where you want to be. If trustworthiness has been a problem for you, learning to believe in your ability to think these sorts of issues through will be a great first step.
Second, seek outside opinions and advice. This can seem counterintuitive in that you might end up asking or even paying someone to tell you that the way you’ve been doing things is wrong or somehow off base. As tough as that might sound, getting reliable outside counsel can open your eyes to issues you have haven’t considered or fully realized.
(Back in May 2009, Mike Farley devoted his “Book Notes” column in WaterShapes to Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Teal Book of Trust, another resource that might prove valuable in your deliberations.)
Third, make a plan: Identify a goal and define the steps you’ll need to achieve it, recognizing that almost anything of value is accomplished over the long haul – and that very few things are completely beyond your reach.
To those of you who would say this all sounds too simple, even childish, I counter by saying, if it’s so damned easy, how come so few people take these basic steps? Ultimately, being trustworthy and having the judgment and confidence to trust in others are flip sides of a single coin that reflects the core of what and who you are as a professional and a person.
The irony of this discussion is that those who probably need it most are probably infrequent readers of magazines of the caliber of WaterShapes or nonparticipants in educational programs of the sort offered by Genesis 3. Odds are that those of you who do read and use this magazine and take advantage of available educational opportunities are already moving along this path. Unfortunately, those on the outside may never perceive the most obvious of truths: The values we live by are the values we impose on ourselves, and being worthy of trust is one of those that defines the essence of who we are as people.
Sure, I’m being preachy, but I’ve seen these principles work in my own life and business and in the lives and businesses of countless others I’ve met and worked with through the years. Elevating your game does work, but you have to free your mind to think not only in terms of achieving great things for yourself, but also for involving and elevating those around you.
Finally, to those who would say that, in any economy such as this, there’s no self-help regime that can change the fact that business has dried up and cupboards are bare, I would argue that in this market, trust and integrity are absolutely the most important of all commodities. When things are good, people don’t watch their pennies quite as carefully and might be more willing to take chances – but that’s certainly not the case right now.
It may be in short supply in our society, but I would say that trust is what we need most these days. Those of you who are already trustworthy bring to the marketplace something special and of immeasurable value, and it’s my bet that the most trustworthy among us are those who thrive in bad times and will always reap the greatest benefits from the good.
Without fear of contradiction, I know I am correct in this: Trust me.
Brian Van Bower operates Aquatic Consultants in Miami and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group. With more than 40 years’ experience in the swimming pool and spa industry, he now specializes in the design of swimming pools, recreational areas and hydrotherapy clinics. As a consultant, he also conducts training and inspections and serves as an expert witness in insurance investigations. From his start with pools in 1967, he’s been a pool manager, service technician and contractor, operating Van Bower Pool, Patio & Spas from 1971 until 1991. He began consulting in 1989 and co-founded Van Bower & Wiren in 1995 to specialize in high-end pool-construction projects. He’s been active in trade associations throughout his career at the local, regional and national levels, has won numerous design awards and has been inducted into the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame.