Trust – an answer to the decision makers’ dilemma?

trustAs a board member of several boards I learnt to be suspicious of a ‘one-off’ reason/excuse for failure. Especially if the same problem returned but was ‘explained away’ with a different ‘one-off’ answer. It was always worth drilling down for the root causes, always worth examining the process.

A poor outcome can be used as an opportunity to improve a process. You will find that the trust in you and your processes will increase if you do, as illustrated in the following two stories:

1. The Quality Control Manager of a large white goods industry tells how sales considerably increased when he took the trouble to explain to sales staff what problems had occurred in the past and what had been done to ensure that they would not happen again. The sales staff used these stories in their conversations with potential buyers who were impressed by the quality improvement processes involved. They bought into the process – and the product. But even more interesting, he told me that if customers had had an initial problem with a product butit was fixed promptly and courteously, they became more loyal customers than those who had not had a problem at all! The reason is that with their good experience of correction, they now trust the process.

2. This is a personal story:  I was working on a report, one of a series, for the South Australian Public Accounts Committee, and discovered a flaw in the modelling – at the 11th hour!  The Committee had approved it and the House had been advised we would be tabling but when we sat down to write the press release it became evident something was wrong. Worse, I had no idea how to put it right.This presented somewhat of a problem as the rules are that once the Committee commences an investigation, it must publish its findings. Nobody had noticed, and perhaps nobody would, but I knew it was there. We could not let it go ahead and had to advise the House that there would be a delay. In the event I was able, after much further and anxious work, to find the solution. But I was convinced that after this embarrassing hiccup the Committee would never trust my judgement again and I was prepared for a hard time when I presented the next report in the series. It never came. In fact, they were less, not more critical and searching.  I was very puzzled. The Committee Secretary grinned: “Why should you be surprised? They now know that the process can be trusted, for when the going gets tough you will protect them from embarrassment at the cost of your own”. That poor outcome had, paradoxically given me an advantage!  With the chance to refine and demonstrate the strength of our checking procedures, trust levels went up!

Question: Could this be an answer to our decision-maker’s dilemma’s (Oct 21 and Oct 25)?

5 Thoughts on “Trust – an answer to the decision makers’ dilemma?

  1. Patrick Whelan on October 29, 2016 at 8:18 pm said:

    This reminds me of the dilemma in medicine: a mistake leads to an adverse outcome. The hospital’s insurers instruct to say nothing. The patient’s loved ones get angry, and it proceeds to litigation. BUT, it has been found that simply by saying “sorry, a serious mistake has been made and we are working out a way to stop it ever happening again,” that the patient’s loved ones are more than likely to leave it at that. They have had their faith in the Hippocratic oath’s words “do no harm” restored, and they buy in to the ided that steps are being taken to prevent re-occurrence. No litigation.

    It seems to me that we are here hitting on something very fundamental to human nature. Both examples display an acceptance of fallibility. We are all fallible, we all make mistakes. If you admit it, you are more likely to be greeted with acceptance than if you go on as if you are perfect.

    I think there is a lot for infrastructure decision makers to learn from this. You don’t have all the answers, so don’t pretend you have.

  2. I was going to comment on Gregory’s initial post 11/10 and in subsequent follow ups (21 & 25/10) but have only just now found time to do so… I’m glad I waited, since each in this series of posts captures something of what I wanted to say.

    I’m an ethical theory enthusiast rather than an expert, but from my extensive research (Googling for 10 minutes!) it appears Philippa Foot devised the trolley problem (see 11/10 post) as a critique of CONSEQUENTIALIST ethics. She (like my favourites Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas) was interested in VIRTUE ethics – modernising Aristotelian ethics.

    Hauerwas says contemporary ethics assumes no one faces an ethical issue until they find themselves in a quandary (e.g. trolley problem): most of our moral concerns are “PROBLEMS” that ethics, as a rational science, can help us evaluate alternative “solutions”. Ethics is a branch of decision theory. I suggest this idea is appealing to engineers: we are all about applying rational science to solve problems!

    Hauerwas argues that this kind of ethical analysis gives the impression that judgements can be justified apart from the agent who finds himself or herself in the situation. The intentions or reasons proper to a particular agent become irrelevant. The CHARACTER of the agent becomes irrelevant, but this simply isn’t true.

    I think Penny is right to suggest that ‘trust is an answer to the decision maker’s dilemma’… but trust in what? In the CHARACTER of the fridge manufacturer and Penny herself, their VIRTUE!

    Patrick’s comment (on the 21/10 post) cited the DUTY of the officers, and this is another way of looking at it (duty ethics is the 3rd main school of ethical theory, along with consequentialist and virtue ethics)… but virtue ethics expands our horizons considerably. At issue always is the CHARACTER of the organisation: the railway organisation needed to think not just about the particular “problem” of the signalling project, but whether or not it was doing what was ‘right’ (ethical!) in the context of what Hauerwas might call the “story” of that organisation that shapes its character: an organisation with a history of cost overruns and poor performance. Penny’s fridge manufacturer understood this story was then an effective reference point for sales staff.

    I hope this approach clarifies the “right” answer to the “problem” in the 25/10 post: of course they need to make superiors aware of problems now being experienced in the other country. It isn’t about short term embarrassment but long term character of the organisation. Being innovative means having the virtue of courage (to try new things) but also virtues of justice and truthfulness (because not everything will work). An organisation that can’t be honest when it tries and fails isn’t virtuous. Over time people will see through this anyway: innovation is results, not talk.

    I’ve made a couple of attempts to write a book about “ancient (Aristotelian) ethics for modern communities” but am yet to complete one… for now, I’ll have to cite an example related to me by a mate (whose character I respect!) earlier in the week: a GM of a council he worked for was wise in first re-establishing TRUST with the community (by actually listening to them and doing a couple of things they’d been asking for for years) and THEN starting a conversation about a special rate variation to fund infrastructure maintenance and renewal.

    It wasn’t about the “problem” but the character of the organisation (and ourselves). If we want to “talk infrastructure” we will do well to remember that… which is, I think, what Penny is saying in this post.


    • In both instances, it was TRUST IN THE PROCESS.

    • The Trolley Problem is active in the news again as autonomous vehicles reach the degree of sophistication where this decision now needs to be addressed.

      On the issue of the character of an organisation, Fortune Magazine reports that:
      Mercedes-Benz’s Self-Driving Cars Would Choose Passenger Lives Over Bystanders

      Prioritising passenger lives is attributed to there being more control over the passengers situation, however the decision sits very well with the character of the organisation – preserving the lives of owners and passengers.

      MIT has The Moral Machine, gathering data on people’s decision making in trolley problem situations, to inform autonomous vehicle design.

      Morality and ethics will be in constant debate as our future infrastructure becomes increasingly intelligent.

  3. My analysis is far more basic than Bens. I agree that trust and the ability to take people on a journey are critical to success. We waste too much time listening to respond rather than listening to hear. The organisation i work for had staff volunteer to create a recycled xmas tree in 2015. The community loved it and they have started to trust that we understand how the community works. In relation to innovation – I also believe that you must give permission to staff and have them trust that “happy mistakes” are fundamental to how we will work.

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