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-- Confucius

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Trust Interview Series: Robert Porter Lynch

by Charles H. Green, Trusted Advisor
Blog Number : 578 Date: February 19,

Robert Porter Lynch may be one of the best trust thinkers you haven’t heard of. A long-time thought leader in strategic alliances, he has written several books on collaboration and innovation. He quotes Robert Frost, has studied how the Greeks created trust, and counter-balances Machiavelli. He is just as at home with high tech companies and the laborer in the trenches. 

He’s currently working with Paul R. Lawrence (Professor Emeritus, Organization Behavior at Harvard Business School) on Lawrence’s a new book: Driven to Lead, and his own book: Leadership and the Architecture of Trust.(to be published)

Excerpts from our Interview:

CHG: Welcome to the Trust Quotes series, Robert. You cover a range of trust-related topics, but let’s start with one. You talk about the strong link between trust and innovation. Can you explain that link to us?

RPL: Absolutely. All innovation comes from people who think differently — that is, one perspective meets another, and something new can be born. If two people in the same room think alike, one is unnecessary when it comes to innovation,. The eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension between opposites.

But two differing perspectives don’t automatically create something new, and all too often the differences become destructive: like Republicans vs. Democrats, old vs. new, my way or the highway.

So the art becomes: how can you increase the creative aspect of interactions between opposites? And the answer is trust. When this tension exists in a trusting environment, people’s creative juices are aligned, and they become jointly innovative, thus trust is an alignment of human energy. This aligned energy is also referred to as synergy – something that is so often elusive in organizations and relationships.

CHG: That’s fascinating. Earlier in this series, Ross Smith of Microsoft said very much the same thing. Are you two in cahoots?

RPL: Nope, never heard of him, but that’s how memes work. That and he’s obviously an insightful man!

CHG: Well, how does creating greater trust enable greater innovation?

RPL: Turns out that’s a great question. Let me re-tweak it a bit, if I may. The question is: how can teams act at the highest level of performance? And the reason I phrase it that way is that there’s solid evidence to show that the highest team performance comes from trust. So high performance teams ought to know something about trust.

CHG: Where did you look, and what did you find?

RPL: I spent 2 years looking over the worst-to-first instances in sports: such as Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of 1960 going from the bottom of the league to the Superbowl, or Pat Riley taking the L.A. Lakers to the NBA championship, or the most exciting of them all -- arguably the greatest worst-to- first performance of all time, the 1980 American hockey team that won Olympic Gold against all odds, culminating in a win over the monstrously dominant Russian team.

One thing people forget is that Coach Ross Brooks -- a man who had himself had been turned down from an earlier Olympic team — turned down a player who himself had more talent and better credentials than probably any other player on the team.

Why would a coach refuse a superior player as you’re heading into the Olympics? Well, the player was asked to practice with the team, and the team confronted the coach unanimously, saying ‘you can’t hire him.’

‘Why not?’ asked the coach. 

‘Because he doesn’t give 100%.’

‘But he’s more talented than anyone else, even at less-than-full effort, he’s arguably the best player on the ice.’

‘But coach,’ the players said; ‘if you never know what effort he’s going to give, you can’t trust what he’ll do.  You never know how much game he’s bringing. You cannot depend on him to be reliable.’ Besides, he wasn’t a collaborative kind of guy, he’d rather try to score himself than pass the puck to someone better positioned. That’s why in hockey they still call Wayne Gretzky the “Great One:” because he not only scored more goals than any other player, he also had more assists – he was the ultimate team player.

And it is this sense that permeates all great teams. They trust each other; they trust each other to give the utmost to the team. Which means, everyone can rely on everyone else’s motives, and everyone can trust the results. Unqualified commitment each member of the team drives trust, and trust enables high performance.

That’s the link.

CHG: Wow. I get it. So, where are some lessons for business?

RPL: Well, you’d think way more businesses would grasp the obvious economics of collaborating — cross functional teams, innovative supply chains, alliances and joint ventures, for example. But very few companies do them right—because they don’t trust, because they don’t know how trust is created or destroyed.

CHG: How does that play out?

RPL: Todd Welch and I researched this; and the one thing we found was that unless there is trust at the top of the organization, collaborations don’t work. When trust is lacking, legal agreements are erroneously expected to fill the gap. And, of course, the longer the legal agreement, the stronger the distrust, because nearly all legal agreements actually generate more distrust, exacerbating fears and thus making it less likely the venture would succeed. You could make book on it.

CHG: You told me a story of a client who does major huge deals on a handshake basis. What’s the real story behind that one?

RPL: That is the real story. The only thing surprising is that the rest of us consider it surprising.  The company is Daymon Worldwide, which provides private label brands to the grocery industry. I’ve seen Du Pont and Merck put a billion-dollar joint venture together on a handshake, and the legal agreements followed a year later. I witnessed a Fleet bank enter a multi-million construction of their headquarters on a handshake with Gilbane Construction company. Handshake deals are far more common than many think.

CHG: You have developed a couple of models for thinking about trust; can you tell us briefly about them?

RPL: One of the primary reasons trust has been an elusive mystery is because we have either ambiguous or complicated understanding about why humans act the way they do. Recently Paul Lawrence has cracked the code on human behavior and provided a very elegant way of explaining what others have made so convoluted. The anyone from senior execs to high-school students grasps it in about five minutes: Here’s a brief explanation: [you can edit this as you wish. ]

Drivers of Human Nature

To understand the nature of trust, it’s first necessary to grasp the fundamental roots of human nature and how our brains are wired from our evolution as a species. Reaching back to what Darwin found in his Origin of the Species, and extensive research over the last hundred years into the neurological process of the human brain, we can understand how humans behave and what drives performance. Each individual on the planet is imbued with four innate “drives”:

  • Drive to Acquire – to secure food and shelter, retain and own useful resources, exert control over one’s environment, including pleasure and, pushed to the limit, greed and domination.
  • Drive to Bond – to physically engage (sex, embracing), to form long-term mutually caring relationships, to collaborate, form teams & alliances, and to love.
  • Drive to Create – first to learn, to comprehend one’s environment, then to inquire beyond, improve, imagine and invent, and to find meaning and purpose.
  • Drive to Defend – to protect from threats to one’s physical self, one’s loved ones, valued possessions and basic beliefs, and, pushed to the extreme, to attack.

 Each individual has their own distinctive blend of these drives and typically manifests them in manner learned from their unique experiences in life. These drives must be reasonably satisfied and independent of one another in the sense that fulfilling one does not contribute to the fulfilling of the others This means that the drives are often in conflict, but, with conscious awareness of the need to satisfy these inherent drives, the effective leader can resolve these conflicts by selecting a course of action that best satisfies all four drives but emphasizes the higher-order drives that make us uniquely human.

 However, the culture of the immediate organizational environment has a major effect on these drives, either by reinforcing or suppressing one drive over another. That’s why the same individual may behave quite differently in different organizations, or why changing leaders can produce radically different results within the same group of people. 

An organizational culture based on control and fear will trigger the Acquire and Defend drivers, resulting in an organization that has fiefdoms and power-struggles as territorial battles and rivalries emerge between business units, functions, or buyers and suppliers (and also producing very poor alliances and acquisitions). The fear-greed cycle, as typified by Wall Street, is the result of these two drivers becoming predominant. Typically acquisitions are failures because the Create and Bond drives are suppressed, making it extraordinarily difficult to integrate new innovation streams and creative teams into the acquiring company.

On the other hand, trust-building targets the Bonding and Creative drives (the underpinning of the term “collaborative innovation”) that are so essential to a modern corporation. Trust unleashes human energy, enabling the Creative learning drives of individuals to align and Bond. Thus teams and alliances are able to produce extraordinary results far beyond what can be achieved when distrust is activated by the Acquire and Defend drives.

The Leadership Compass acts as a navigational instrument for leaders to determine a course to achieve strategic objectives. In a fast moving, rapidly changing world, where flexibility and adaptability are strategically essential to success, setting a course that stimulates both the drives to Bond and Create supports collaborative innovation, and thus is far superior to one that activates the less competitively attractive Acquire and Defend drives.

Just as individuals manifest their unique drivers, so do organizations; we often refer to this as “culture:” a set of patterns of behavior and organizational processes that are measured and rewarded, giving each organization a unique fingerprint. A leader must be especially cognizant of his or her molding of these drivers because of the massive impact on outcomes.

 For example, the “dominate” and “control” (Acquire & Defend) nature of General Motors toward its suppliers during the last two decades created a severe competitive disadvantage compared to Honda and Toyota’s use of a far more advantageous collaborative innovation (Bond & Create). This is evident in the 2004 PPI report that stated that because the trust level with GM was so low that supplier innovation flow was being directed to Toyota and Honda, and away from GM.

[Charlie, I could go into the Trust Spectrum here, but it would really make the blog too long. Perhaps we could use it in Round 2]

CHG: What’s your view of the connection between trust and ethics? And what’s the state of ethics in business these days?

RPL: It goes without saying that ethics are in an abominable state of affairs, but I’m not sure that’s really different. Washington is better now than it was in the 1870’s, and business is probably no worse than it’s ever been. That’s an empty compliment because poor trust is very, very expensive. The biggest problem with ethics is the illusion we all have that good ethics would cure the problems of distrust.

Ethics actually creates a dilemma for building trust. While the lack of ethics will definitely destroy trust, the presence of ethics may only bring trust to a neutral point. Good ethics implies “I won't do something wrong;” it takes the fear out of the picture. But it doesn't mean “I'll be effective,” nor “use sound judgment,” nor “be collaborative,” nor “compassionate,” nor “spontaneous.” Other things are necessary.

We all know ethical people who are ornery, dispassionate, inconsiderate, self-righteous, or uncooperative; thus while “trustworthy,” they are still not able to generate a trusting relationship. Trust embraces far more than ethics.

If you think about the Four Drivers Model above, real trust comes from people who are willing to be highly cooperative as well as ethical. Trust manifests when three things are boldly present: good character, good competence, and good collaboration. When we see great trust, we see people who know that their self-interest must always be put into a bigger picture: what’s in the mutual interest of the relationship itself.

Just yesterday I was asked to help rebuild a relationship between two business partners where the trust had broken down. The older of the two partners said it so well:

  • For me at this stage of my life, I find it very difficult to separate friendship from business. The qualities of a great friend are quite similar to those of a great partner. Frankly, I don’t know where the dividing line is any more. The qualities of trust, integrity, mutuality, loyalty, and commitment to a larger mission are inherent in both a friendship and business partnership. As we embark on the threshold of a noble destiny together, I want these qualities to be present between us. In fact, this is more than a “want,” it is an “essential ingredient.”

I think this says it all! If distrust were a disease, we’d be calling it an epidemic!

[Not sure I want to take it too far in the spiritual direction here, but feel free to push back on me—I certainly agree with you, and I’d love to get some of it in here. You know the business world; let’s figure out what we can say and not lose them]. [Charlie, I’d be happy to go deep in the spiritual direction, but to do so, I think I need to introduce the Trust Spectrum first. That could be another blog.]


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