Cause for Conflict? How to Avoid the “You Dirty Rat” Syndrome

Trust, it’s been suggested, is comprised of three underlying elements: motive, reliability, and competence. Have all three and you have trust; miss on one and you likely have skepticism and distrust.

This post helps you to better understand the motive part of the equation, and how you can improve the ability of people to trust you.

Just as with working as a candidate with recruiters – see Can You Trust the Recruiter? –  it’s important to keep all three in mind, it’s also important to apply the same standard to anyone with whom you rely on. Trust, almost like virginity, is frequently hard to get back. Matt Twyman, Nigel Harvey and Clare Harries from University College London provide a great overview on how people risk – or don’t risk – sharing information based on two of these (motive and competence) factors.

Conflict of interest – an antagonist to the trust element motive  – can potentially be found almost anywhere; one person’s conflict of interest (as a kickback for example) is another person’s routine way of doing business. Here are some examples:

  • In some residential real estate markets for example, commission fee splitting for referrals is a common way of doing business. If one real estate agents refers a potential buyer to another agent who  makes a home purchase with that buyer, part of the sales commission goes back to the referring agent, usually without the buyer knowing that the referring agent had an incentive involved. The same mechanism applies, by the way, to people who handle corporate relocations; the relocation agent receives part of the sales commission fee if a the referring buyer makes a sale with the referred agent.
  • In the realm of pyschotherapy, where patient confidentiality is (or should be) front and center, prospective patients will have no idea what the business relationship is of the treating therapist; your current boss, or prospective boyfriend/girlfriend may be in treatment with your therapist and it is likely not to be disclosed to you. While it makes for good patient privacy, it can also make for an awkward chance meeting in a patient waiting room.
  • Accretive Solutions, a national consulting and executive search firm, promotes its ability to provide consulting talent to help you run your business, and its ability to surface talent for you to hire. The obvious conflict – can you trust the consulting side of their house not to be talent intelligence scouts for the recruiting side of their house – is a minefield of murky motives.

One best practice in avoiding conflict of interest – and mitigating issues around the element of motive that underlies it –  is to think of a conflict of interest as a coin with two sides. One side is to have an actual conflict – to have some personal (financial, family, reputation, etc.) interest informing or making a decision. The other side is to have the appearance of a conflict; an appearance that may be construed by perceived or misunderstood interest. Channel the recent Hewlett-Packard / Mark Hurd case for a recent example of the appearance of conflict.

So how do you increase your ability to have a “positive” motives, and mitigate distrust?

  1. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, “transparency,” as Keith Ashdown has noted , “is the best disinfectant.” Making sure people know how the plumbing works as to how any decisions are made helps ensure that motive is fairly viewed.
  2. Related to transparency, disclosure is the way to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Letting people know in advance of any conflicts or the appearance of conflicts as an act in itself increases the likelihood that motive and trust will avoid damage.
  3. Last, recusal – stepping aside from participation in a situation in which you are or may be conflicted – keeps any suspicion of bad or improper motive at bay.

Trust has become one of the key factors in many of our work and personal relationships. It’s the reasons why businesses like Facebook and Digg have risen to prominence as people trust the opinions of friends and networks more and experts less and less. By keeping your conflicts known and clear, you keep your motives clean – earning the trust of those around you.

Just like it’s helpful to disclose any conflicts, it’s helpful to ask. Some exec and teach coaches, for example, participate in fee sharing arrangements ( I don’t and see my Ethics Statement for the full 9 yards) for referrals and it’s nice to know if there’s a financial incentive that is operating.

Taking that steps keeps you clear and clean – and avoids the label of the distrusted – as James Cagney never said – “you dirty rat.”

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). J. Mike Smith is a San Franciosco-based career, executive and team coach with an international practice. More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview at WhoHub, as well as participate in a learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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