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Human Element: Trust in the Digital Age
By Sid Scott, Scott Consultants

Last month, I shared my thoughts and ideas learned from others on how we establish trust in our business relationships. While establishing trust has always been difficult, in the fast-paced world of the 21st century and the variety of ways we communicate digitally with each other, establishing trust has unfortunately become more challenging.

The main reason for the increased difficulty is that the written word – whether sent through a text message, an email, a 'tweet,' a posting on social media, or other means – lacks many of the characteristics by we judge whether we can trust other individuals. Put very simply, written communication lacks the body language that humans exhibit when they are conversing face-to-face.

Here's what I shared last month about the characteristics of people we tend to trust. Trustworthy folks:

1. Listen and acknowledge suggestions of others. This sounds pretty simple to do, but I am always amazed at how many leaders don't listen and acknowledge ideas that others generate. Not only is this arrogant and demeaning, but it is also dumb to not seek and encourage input from everyone in the organization.

2. Tell the truth and communicate openly. This is very difficult for some people. Sharing part of the information about a change or a situation, or rationalizing that others wouldn't understand or wouldn't care can undermine future trust. People who are trusted don't try to rewrite what happened, spin the truth or avoid it. This applies to mistakes that a leader or the company has made. Acknowledge them, make your apologies and move on. People will respect you for being human.

3. Do what they promise to do. There is no surer way to kill trust than by not following through with something. When a leader states his or her intention to make changes, whatever they might be, people expect to see the changes implemented. If something goes awry and inhibits the leader's ability to do the thing he or she promised, we need to tell the truth, answer questions and listen to the feedback.

4. Live by the same rules and policies they ask others to live by. This has been a huge criticism of Congress. Laws have been passed that apply to businesses, but senators and representatives have often exempted themselves. It's no accident the majority of citizens do not trust them. The same applies to businesses. Every time an organization makes exceptions and has one set of rules and policies for a small group of leaders, trust deteriorates and sometimes evaporates.

5. Consistently do the first four things on the list. We know this is true in our personal relationships and it applies to business, too. We can't be trustworthy 95 percent of the time and expect loyalty and respect from others. It really is an 'all or nothing' thing with trust.

When you read through these five items, note how many of them require us to observe and make judgments based on how people act and behave. In early infancy, we learn, long before spoken language, how to trust our family members. They, in turn, learn how to read our cries and visual actions to accurately assess if we are hungry, tired, fussy, playful of just want to be held. It's no accident that some experts contend that the majority of what we understand and believe as humans comes from non-verbal cues.

I clearly remember going to a reception for a U.S. Senator many years ago. We were all given the opportunity to shake his hand. Though few words were spoken, at the moment I grasped his hand and looked at his face, I had the distinct sensation he was a person who could not be trusted. Later, after having been a vocal crusader for morality and honesty in government, he was discredited by his deception.  

To further reinforce my argument about the difficulties of establishing trust without in-person contact, a recent study by the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia found people are more likely to lie when texting. The study, using college students, set up an imaginary stock exchange with part of the group as brokers selling stock and the other part acting as buyers. When the researchers included actual money and gave brokers inside information about the businesses, the opportunities to win by lying increased the amount of untruths. Since texting is a common form of communication among younger citizens, it will likely increase opportunities for deception as will other forms of digital, written communication.

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