Stupid or Brilliant

I do a fun exercise in my leadership classes called “Stupid or Brilliant.” I go through a number of scenarios and specify an action that, on the surface, appears to be stupid. In each case, the loss of control would appear to be devastating from a risk point of view. I ask the participants to vote if the action was stupid or brilliant.

There are some examples where there is a documented correct answer, but most of the questions can lead to lively debate. Here is an example of a question with a real answer.

A doughnut street vendor at the base of a skyscraper in New York City noticed that the line was too long while people waited for him to make change. He was losing customers. He put out a box with change and small bills and a sign that read “In a hurry? Make your own change: I trust you!” At first glance, putting money out in trust in NYC would be stupid. People could just take the cash and go. Instead, the vendor found the strategy to be brilliant for three reasons:

1. The throughput of his vending operation increased by 50% because the line moved faster.

2. People started talking about his trust throughout the building, and they came out to buy from this honest vendor.

3. Many people would not even take the change. If their total came to $3.75, they would just put in a five dollar bill and walk away.

Other strategies for trusting people leave room for analysis. For example:

One consultant decided to charge only what the customer felt was appropriate after his work was done. He would leave the fee totally at the discretion of the people he was helping. This tactic defies negotiation logic because it ignores what is called the “call girl” principle of negotiation (the value of the service is greatly reduced after the service is rendered). Yet, this consultant generally did very well and often took away larger fees than he would have if he had negotiated a firm price before doing the work.

One organization was forced by market conditions to do some downsizing. They decided to allow the people being let go to continue to use their old office, computers, and cell phones for several months if they wanted while they looked for work elsewhere. Of course, there were a few stated rules about not being disruptive and honoring professional behaviors while on the premises, but other than that, the severed employees were treated the same as the ones retained. There was a risk, but the company found that in all but a few rare exceptions, the benefits far outweighed the risks.

You can carry blind trust to an extreme where a strategy is truly stupid. One example I give in my classes is this: The owner of a bar does not charge patrons per drink but asks each customer to keep track of what was consumed and pay at the end of the night. Obviously, most people vote for this as a “stupid” strategy. On the other hand, it would make an interesting experiment, because it may be possible that customers would pay more than required on average rather than pay less.

The point is that when we really do trust people to do the right thing, they often respond in ways that defy conventional wisdom. That logic is generally derived from a social norm based on a controlling philosophy. When given the chance, most people react with integrity and gratitude when we extend trust to them.

I have developed what I call the “First Law of Trust.” It is: “If you are unhappy with the level of trust others have toward you, the first corrective action is to find ways to extend trust more to them.” Trust is reciprocal in nature, so the best way to receive more trust is to give more. Try this technique with the people in your life, and you will see a dramatic increase in trust. Often what seems like an unwise risk to take will turn out to be rewarded by far greater loyalty than you can imagine.

14 Responses to Stupid or Brilliant

  1. Wayne Dyson says:

    Fear is a big factor in people trusting more – thus it is refreshing to see people are willing to trust even if it be at the possible cost of being shafted

  2. Indeed Wayne. The way this used to play for me was fear of being hurt more myself and my first reaction was to protect myself expecting that this path would escalate in a bad direction.

    I have been working on consciously realizing that trust is two-part: who can give and who can receive. In cases where I was prepared to trust the other individual but their trust in me was too low for functional productivity, I have tried Bob’s “First Law” (love the name) as an intervention. I had to get my head into the space of “this person has their own issues that drive their behavior that extend beyond me and this situation”. My assumption is that either they have read me as untrustworthy based on a misinterpretation of my (sometimes clumsy) behavior and/ or they have been burned in previous similar situations. Reframing them starts with invalidating their frame of reference through my behavior, i.e. proving that I am worthy of trust, by giving more first.

    Bob, I am curious as to your point on view on this: it also seems to me that game theory comes into play here, as in I give more trust and wait for a reaction – and my next step is determined by that reaction. For example, I give more trust and I expect that the other person will at least demonstrate confusion because this experience is so different than what they expect. Sometimes I will give one more cycle and then wait to see if they take a step either towards me, or towards neutral. Reading their reactions becomes key to deciding my next step. I have tried to play out to a point where we have enough trust, or at least suspension of distrust, that we could have a conversation about it.

    I have found that this consumes a lot of emotional energy – both consciously monitoring mine and sometimes absorbing theirs – so this is a path that I weigh before engaging, as in “am I prepared to see it through?”. Further, it can also create imbalance in the relationship – where I have invested deeply and the other person either feels obligated and/or does not invest back. The only thing that is consistent is that I have always walked away with a clearer conscience.

    Bob, I read your blog regularly, and am always richer for it. I may have missed other relevant posts so please do refer me if you have already covered this.

  3. Jack Pyle says:

    A fascinating post, Bob. Thanks. A key idea I got from your words is to behave the way you want others to behave. Trust them first, then they are likely to trust you. Similar to Mahatma Gandi’s famous quote about “Be the change your want to see…”
    I have found that listening builds trust very quickly, too. People so seldom listen with their entire selves. When they do, eliminating other distractions, magic happens. It is especially easy to see this result when listening to children. They tune in and start opening up to easily share their thoughts and feelings.

  4. O susan says:

    What is stupid?Todays lack of lack of common sense.
    Trust and you’ll be broke.

  5. trustambassador says:

    Hi Wayne and Gail. I agree that fear is a major issue. It is interesting because trust always implies some kind of risk. There is always the risk of a betrayal.

    In my opinion, trust and fear are not opposites. It is more difficult to trust in an environment of fear, but not impossible. A couple examples may help. A soldier may be in great fear due to circumstances yet he can trust the officer in charge to give the best orders under the current conditions. I might be in fear of losing my job but still be able to trust that my boss is doing everything possible on my behalf. On the other hand, if I am afraid of you, I will find it very difficult to trust you. Likewise, if I fully trust you, it is unlikely that I will be afraid of you.

    The more interesting contrast is the difference between trust and respect. Here are two questions to ponder:

    1. Can you respect someone you do not trust?
    2. Can you trust someone you do not respect?

    As you think about the answers, it may reveal a very interesting hierarchy between these two concepts. See if it does for you.

  6. What a powerful message in your post. Thank you very much!

  7. bobbevard says:

    Macaroni Grill actually IS your drink example. They plop a bottle of wine on the table. You keep track of how many glasses you pour (often by crayon marks on the paper table cloth) and pay based on your honor.


    Bob Bevard
    The Speaker With Solutions

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks, Bob. I did not know that. It is exactly what I was talking about in my post.

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