Frances Frei – Culture coach
I want to talk to you about how to build and rebuild trust, because it’s my belief that trust is the foundation for everything we do, and that if we can learn to trust one another more, we can have unprecedented human progress.
But what if trust is broken? What if your CEO is caught on video, disparaging an employee? What if your employees experience a culture of bias, exclusion and worse? What if there’s a data breach, and it feels an awful lot like a cover-up than seriously addressing it? And most tragically, what if a technological fail leads to the loss of human life? If I was giving this talk six months ago, I would have been wearing an Uber T-shirt.
I’m a Harvard Business School professor, but I was super attracted to going to an organization that was metaphorically and perhaps quite literally on fire. I had read everything that was written in the newspaper, and that was precisely what drew me to the organization. This was an organization that had lost trust with every constituent that mattered. But there’s a word about me that I should share. My favorite trait is redemption.
I believe that there is a better version of us around every corner, and I have seen firsthand how organizations and communities and individuals change at breathtaking speed. I went to Uber with the hopes that a turnaround there could give license to the rest of us who might have narrower versions of their challenges. But when I got to Uber, I made a really big mistake. I publicly committed to wearing an Uber T-shirt every day until every other employee was wearing an Uber T-shirt. I had clearly not thought that through. It was 250 days of wearing an Uber T-shirt.
Now I am liberated from that commitment, as I am back at HBS, and what I’d like to do is share with you how far I have taken that liberty, which, it’s baby steps, but I would just say I’m on my way.
Now, trust, if we’re going to rebuild it, we have to understand its component parts. The component parts of trust are super well understood. There’s three things about trust. If you sense that I am being authentic, you are much more likely to trust me. If you sense that I have real rigor in my logic, you are far more likely to trust me. And if you believe that my empathy is directed towards you, you are far more likely to trust me. When all three of these things are working, we have great trust. But if any one of these three gets shaky, if any one of these three wobbles, trust is threatened.
Now here’s what I’d like to do. I want each of us to be able to engender more trust tomorrow, literally tomorrow, than we do today. And the way to do that is to understand where trust wobbles for ourselves and have a ready-made prescription to overcome it. So that’s what I would like to do together.
Would you give me some sense of whether or not you’re here voluntarily? Yeah. OK. All right. Awesome!
OK. So it’s just super helpful feedback. So the most common wobble is empathy. The most common wobble is that people just don’t believe that we’re mostly in it for them, and they believe that we’re too self-distracted. And it’s no wonder. We are all so busy with so many demands on our time, it’s easy to crowd out the time and space that empathy requires. For Dylan to be Dylan, that takes real time.
And for us, if we have too much to do, we may not have that time. But that puts us into a vicious cycle, because without revealing empathy, it makes everything harder. Without the benefit of the doubt of trust, it makes everything harder, and then we have less and less time for empathy, and so it goes.
So here’s the prescription: identify where, when and to whom you are likely to offer your distraction. That should trace pretty perfectly to when, where and to whom you are likely to withhold your empathy. And if in those instances, we can come up with a trigger that gets us to look up, look at the people right in front of us, listen to them, deeply immerse ourselves in their perspectives, then we have a chance of having a sturdy leg of empathy. And if you do nothing else, please put away your cell phone. It is the largest distraction magnet yet to be made, and it is super difficult to create empathy and trust in its presence. That takes care of the empathy wobblers.
Logic wobbles can come in two forms. It’s either the quality of your logic or it’s your ability to communicate the logic. Now if the quality of your logic is at risk, I can’t really help you with that. It’s like, not in this much time. But fortunately, it’s often the case that our logic is sound, but it’s our ability to communicate the logic that is in jeopardy. Super fortunately, there’s a very easy fix to this.
If we consider that there are two ways to communicate in the world, and Harvard Business School professors are known for two-by-twos — nonsense, it’s the triangle that rocks. If we consider that there are two ways to communicate in the world, and the first one is when you take us on a journey, a magnificent journey that has twists and turns and mystery and drama, until you ultimately get to the point, and some of the best communicators in the world communicate just like this. But if you have a logic wobble, this can be super dangerous. So instead, I implore you, start with your point in a crisp half-sentence, and then give your supporting evidence. This means that people will be able to get access to our awesome ideas, and just as importantly, if you get cut off before you’re done, ladies. If you get cut off before you’re done, you still get credit for the idea, as opposed to someone else coming in and snatching it from you. You just gave me goosebumps.
The third wobble is authenticity, and I find it to be the most vexing. We as a human species can sniff out in a moment, literally in a moment, whether or not someone is being their authentic true self. So in many ways, the prescription is clear. You don’t want to have an authenticity wobble? Be you. Great. And that is super easy to do when you’re around people who are like you.
But if you represent any sort of difference, the prescription to “be you” can be super challenging. I have been tempted at every step of my career, tempted personally and tempted by coaching of others, to mute who I am in the world. I’m a woman of super strong opinions, with really deep convictions, direct speech. I have a magnificent wife, and together, we have such crazy ambition. I prefer men’s clothes and comfortable shoes. Thank you, Allbirds. In some contexts, this makes me different.
I hope that each person here has the beautiful luxury of representing difference in some context in your life. But with that privilege comes a very sincere temptation to hold back who we are, and if we hold back who we are, we’re less likely to be trusted. And if we’re less likely to be trusted, we’re less likely to be given stretch assignments. And without those stretch assignments, we’re less likely to get promoted, and so on and so on until we are super depressed by the demographic tendencies of our senior leadership. And it all comes back to our being, our authentic selves.
So here’s my advice. Wear whatever makes you feel fabulous. Pay less attention to what you think people want to hear from you and far more attention to what your authentic, awesome self needs to say. And to the leaders in the room, it is your obligation to set the conditions that not only make it safe for us to be authentic but make it welcome, make it celebrated, cherish it for exactly what it is, which is the key for us achieving greater excellence than we have ever known is possible. So let’s go back to Uber.
What happened at Uber? When I got there, Uber was wobbling all over the place. Empathy, logic, authenticity were all wobbling like crazy. But we were able to find super effective, super quick fixes for two of the wobbles. I’ll give you an illustration of empathy. In the meetings at Uber, it was not uncommon for people to be texting one another about the meeting. I had never seen anything like it. It may have done many things, but it did not create a safe, empathetic environment. The solution though, super clear: technology, off and away. And that forced people to look up, to look at the people in front of them, to listen to them, to immerse themselves in their perspectives and to collaborate in unprecedented ways.
Logic was equally wobbly, and this was because the hypergrowth of the organization meant that people, managers were getting promoted again and again and again. Soon, they were put in positions that they had no business being in. Their positions outstripped their capability, and it was not their fault. The solution: a massive influx of executive education that focused specifically on logic, on strategy and leadership. It gave people the rigor of the quality of their logic, and it turned a whole lot of triangles, right-side up, so people were able to communicate effectively with one another.
The last one, authenticity, I’ll say it’s still mighty wobbly, but honestly, that doesn’t make Uber very different from all of the other companies I’ve seen in Silicon Valley and beyond. It is still much easier to coach people to fit in. It is still much easier to reward people when they say something that you were going to say, as opposed to rewarding people when they say something entirely different than what you were going to say. But when we figure out this, when we figure out how to celebrate difference and how to let people bring the best version of themselves forward, well holy cow, is that the world I want my sons to grow up in. And with the collection of people here, it would be a privilege to lock arms with you and go ahead and rebuild trust in every corner of the globe. Thank you very much.