The Latest Business Buzz Word Is Trust, But Rather than Expanding the Supply, the TrustMe Movement Is Hugely Expanding the Number of People Who Have Reason to Wonder If You and I Are Trustworthy at All

Trust is a precious metal in my periodic table of people qualities, although I tend toward optimism that it can be justified. As readers of Dr. Paul Kordis’ and my book, Strategy of the Dolphin, know, it is a worldview thing with me. Evil, stupidity and blind belief show up much too often to treat trustworthiness as child’s play. Such qualities offend my desire for … well, competence and fairness. So I don’t bestow trust automatically, and I counsel others not to.

For example, I don’t trust automobile dealers. Not a single one of the lot, anywhere on Earth—not a whit. There is nothing in my experience or observation that indicates they deserve to be trusted. The car lots and auto showrooms of the world are marinated in greed, untruths and shady gamesmanship.

For similar reasons, I do not trust big-time politicians. Not a single one, anywhere on Earth. Now, there are some whom I admire more than others. But I don’t fully trust any of them, and you shouldn’t either. Because sooner or later, every prominent politician’s integrity goes on the auction block. And nearly all will claim righteousness or feign piety or swear ignorance or innocence when they sell out, and very few ever get indicted or penalized.

Admire Their Courage, But Be Cautious of Their Power
I do not trust cops. Not a single one, anywhere on Earth. I often admire their courage. And I find their job so fascinating that one of my favorite TV shows is Fox’s “Cops,” on Saturday night. But when you are in the clutches of a policeperson, for a brief but parlous time, you are at their total mercy. For that instant, they can be judge, jury and executioner. You can die, or be beaten, or be framed for a crime on the mere whim of the person behind the badge, and many victims around the world are, every day.

I do not trust ministers, priests, imams or rabbis. Probably most clergy people I’ve met are “good people,” and I’ve liked some of the ones I’ve known best a great deal. They often act sacrificially in admirable ways. They can provide wise, helpful counsel for many at difficult moments. But none I’ve ever met would I trust fully with my deepest questions about what it all means. Those who profess to respect my questioning show suspicions of being in camouflage; those who oppose it can be downright scary.

And now I must confess to a growing distrust of what I’ve come to call the New TrustMe Gurus of the business marketplace. There has been an explosion of them. They are promoting and peddling everything from nasal sprays to social networks and networking to books that tout things like the Joseph D. Pistone technique for winning friends and influencing people.

You may remember Pistone. He was the FBI agent who spent six years infiltrating the Bonanno crime family. In their new best-selling book, Trust Agents, digital marketing consultants Chris Brogan and Julien Smith admire how Pistone, using the alias of Donnie Brasco, won the Mafia’s trust by simply hanging around bars until the goons came to accept him as part of the scene. The point Trust Agents’ authors wish to make: you need to build up trust with your target markets before you make your move, not as you are making it.

Go Straight to the Heart of the Matter: the Pituitary Gland
Now, I’m willing to concede that many of the techniques in Trust Agents have value and are ethically light years ahead of the methods being advocated by some of the promoters of oxytocin, the “love hormone.”

Researchers from Zurich to Atlanta to Houston to Los Angeles are captivated these days by what happens when they squirt a few atomized drops of oxytocin into people’s (and rodents’) noses.

Oxytocin (not to be confused with oxycontin, a morphine-like drug associated with the death of DJ AM) is the short polypeptide hormone released by the pituitary gland. Within a few minutes of inhaling the drug in sufficient quantity, trust becomes a five-letter word for everything from let’s make a date (or set one for nuptials) to where did you want me to sign to let’s spray the whole Middle East with this stuff. The New-Age-in-a-spray-bottle effect seems to last for two to four hours.

Liquid Trust® was reputedly the first oxytocin spray on the market. (There is now also a Liquid Trust Enhanced.) Sellers of LT have this advice for their business customers: “Use Liquid Trust in creative ways around your workplace. Before important presentations or meetings, spray some Liquid Trust around your desk or conference room [sic] see the magic happen. You could even spray some on memos or reports that you have to hand to your manager! Although they cannot smell it, Liquid Trust is there and working to increase trust in you.” [Go here for more tips, like spraying LT on thank you cards to your clients.]

The Trust Equation Is Still the Same: Stand and Deliver
However, it is neither the outpouring of glib “Chicken Soup for the Marketer” books nor the wretched excesses of the new Mary Kays of the oxytocin receptor industry that has triggered my disgruntlement for the new TrustMe movement in business. I’m simply disappointed that trust has been monetized and commodified and its pursuit irrationally “scaled” to the point where it is sure to be devalued when the trust bubble implodes.

The newly evangelical TrustMe movement in business simply isn’t producing. I know this because people who keep making me promises as part of the new TrustMe clique simply aren’t delivering, not any more than before. Tantalizing hints of imminent breakthrough developments tipple off the lips and fingertips as easily as ever—never to be heard of again, just as before. Expressions and pledges of networking solidarity arrive en masse, only to wither like last week’s flower bouquet. It’s the same old, same old, not the New Millennium.

What I think has happened is this: the TrustMe/social networking edifice is built on sands underlain by the same old human deep-water rip tides and whirlpools, and nobody has been doing any real core-sampling. While the neurocortex poses, the limbic circle and the reptilian brain continue to dispose.

Trust is still what our deepest instincts have always said it is: a very small circle. Earning trust still requires what it has always required: showing over time that you can deliver consistently on honest promises. You can have a thousand people in your LinkedIn network and three thousand Twitter followers and Facebook friends out the kazoo, and nothing fundamental about the trust equation changes. Commit + follow-through, again and again = trust.

The Danger is Seeing Trust as a Numbers Game
Meanwhile, the demands of all that networking have made it nearly impossible for more and more of us to carry out the basics that can, over time, lead to the kind of trust that the new TrustMe business and social networking movement has been hoping to benefit from.

The experts call this “strategic trust.” This develops slowly, usually requiring years. It is very fragile, and can disappear in a finger’s snap. It happens, if it happens, because people stay around. They keep their promises. They radiate dependability and integrity in their actions. They reveal more and more of themselves and eventually, over time, become a “sum that is greater than the parts” in the experience and expectations of people for whom they count and on whom they count.

Few things are more fragile and require more tending than strategic trust. I’m not seeing very much of that emerging from the new TrustMe movement, and I don’t expect that it will. And that’s going to be very disappointing to a lot of folks.

They bought into the idea that trust-building can be a numbers game. And that being trusted is something that can be demonstrated and benefited from by showing up more and more often along the long tail of the Internet. By the time they figure out the truth, the authors of things like Trust Agents and the inventors of Liquid Trust will be long gone. And with them will go the only money anyone will make out of all this talk about how important it is to send word at the speed of light to an ever-growing myriad of message addicts (or message ignorers) of just how trustworthy you are.

Trust Values Are Eroding, Across the Board and the Seas
While Nero is fiddling, Rome shows signs of burning down. In its summer report on the top 10 trends for 2010, McKinsey, the big consulting company, says trust in business is declining. McKinsey points out that falling trust levels increase transaction costs, lower brand values and bring greater difficulties attracting customers and retaining talent.

Dr. Eric Uslander, the trust-studying scholar at the University of Maryland-College Park, says generalized levels of trust have been declining in the United States for more than 30 years. The decline is substantial. While not the same as “strategic trust,” generalized trust is a barometer of sorts for the overall economic health of a society and its business environment. In poorer countries, both strategic and generalized levels of trust are abominable, and getting no better. This is, of course, one of the chief reasons that they are poor.

So trust is as important as ever. Too important, I think, to be left to the TrustMe Movement. This is my advice: don’t put a lot of trust, time or money in following the TrustMe hype. The last thing you need to do is let the TrustMe folks cause you to devote so much time to trying to network with people you hope you can trust and who will end up trusting you that you have no time to prove yourself trustworthy. Call that a fatal attraction to trying to do trust on the cheap.

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