Scorpions Sting

A number of years ago, I was meeting for the first time a principal of a vendor. Our business had just over a year under its belt. His business was not much older. We had interacted via email and phone prior to our first meeting. After sharing a coffee and a sandwich we toured his office together while chatting casually. Their business involves providing a software platform for facilitating electronic payments. We talked about some of the risks and whether there were some sectors of the economy worth shying away from all together. He offered a ruling principle he had been introduced to noting, “You can’t do good business with bad people.”

That simple sentence has served him well as he continues to lead a growing business more than fifteen years later. You can’t do good business with bad people is a great business lesson to live by. It reflects and reinforces a lesson from the fable of the Frog and the Scorpion introduced in an earlier article. If you recall, our scorpion had convinced a frog to shuttle the scorpion across a swollen river only to sting and kill the frog swimming to the other side. Scorpions sting. Our scorpion shows us in a cynical way that some folk, in spite of what they say, are not to be trusted. Actions speak louder than words. Scorpions represent bad people with which we can’t do good business. Our vendor and the fable are encouraging us to protect ourselves by not engaging with those that aren’t trustworthy. Unfortunately, we can’t control others. They are who they are. They reveal the content of their character to us through their actions. We don’t want to fall into the pit of cynicism and view each interaction as a transaction that is likely to go negative. How should we approach our relations with others? Should we assume they are scorpions, dangerous and unchangeable?

Consider Newton’s third law of gravity. For every action, there’s an equal opposite reaction. If we stand on the ground, the ground pushes back on us with a force equal to our weight. If we transfer the timeless third law of Newton to relationships, do we receive something equal to that which is given? If we greet a dog and scratch behind his ears, how do they respond? Do they lean into the scratch approvingly seeking additional attention? Is the attention we offer met with similar attention in return? What if we kick the dog? Do they become friendlier towards us? If we want a new puppy to develop comfort in their new home, we need to provide them with comfort, reassurance, and stability. Regular feeding, a warm place to sleep, a soothing tone of voice, and kind touch breeds affection and devotion in return from the animal over time. It seems just like in Newton’s world, we get what we give. If human interaction follows Newton’s third law, what we lead with is with what we will be met. In this case it makes sense to lead with respect, generosity, and trust. If, instead, we lead with pushing, we’ll be met with a shove in return. In other words, we get what we give. This idea is known as reciprocity. This tendency runs so deep within us, it almost seems biological. If someone does something nice for us, we want to return the favor. We feel out of sorts if we aren’t afforded the opportunity to give back. Robert Cialdini writes of the power of the law of reciprocity in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Peter Kaufman, CEO of an aerospace company, gave a speech in which he talked about leading with the behavior you want to see others exhibit as being the essence of leadership. Kaufman offers that we all share certain desires. We all want to be seen and heard. We want to be respected. We also want fulfillment and meaning in our lives. We want to feel like we matter. We all want these things. Kaufman paints the picture of a dog greeting its owner upon their return from a day at the office. The dog throws enthusiasm, love, attention to the owner such that the owner feels all of these deep emotional needs being filled. The owner’s love for the animal grows as a result. “All you have to do, if you want everything in life from everybody else, is first pay attention; listen to them; show them respect; give them meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Convey to them that they matter to you. But you have to go first. And what are you going to get back? Mirrored reciprocation.”

Further in his speech, Kaufman provides an example to illustrate the opportunity to each of us to lead in our interactions with others.

“So I have an example I use with the class, my elevator example. I’m famous for my elevator story. You’re standing in front of an elevator. The doors open. And inside the elevator is one solitary stranger. You’ve never met this person before in your whole life. You walk into the elevator; you have three choices for how you’re going to behave as you walk into this elevator. Choice number one: you can smile and say good morning. And I say, at least in California, if you do that, 98 percent of the time the person will smile and say good morning back. You can test it. Okay. My guess is you’re going to find that 98 percent of the time, people say good morning. Choice number two: you can walk in and you can scowl and hiss at this stranger in the elevator. And they have no idea why you’re scowling and hissing at them. And I say 98 percent of the time, they may not hiss back at you, but they will scowl back at you. And option number three. This is where the wisdom comes. You can walk into the elevator and you can do nothing. And what do you get 98 percent of the time if you walk into an elevator and you do nothing from that stranger in the elevator? Nothing. It’s mirrored reciprocation, isn’t it? But what did you have to do? You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.”

As Kaufman notes, the law of reciprocity is not exactly like Newton’s third law in that Newton’s third law applies 100% of the time. There are no exceptions. The risk of reciprocity is that it isn’t 100%. Kaufman considers it 98% effective in that we get back what we give 98% of the time. Yes, we may be disappointed from time to time with someone’s response, but it is not very often. Kaufman notes that Bono shares a commitment to reciprocity all be it with a slightly different ratio. Bono writes in Bono on Bono that he believes that 90% of the time we get back what we put out. If we show kindness and trust, we bring these traits out in others nine out of ten times. From Bono’s vantage point as from Kaufman’s the small risk of disappointment is worth the overwhelming benefit of leading with what you want to see.

We’re looking to endorse an approach Jim Collins was introduced to from a colleague and co-author. In BE 2.0 (Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0), Collins writes about what he called Bill’s Trust Wager which he learned from his co-author, Bill Lazier. Bill recognized that we each have a choice in terms of how we will view the motivations of others that we encounter. We can default to a position of trust or mistrust. We can treat people like well-intended frogs or be cynical and sceptical seeing others as scorpions. Bill inherently understood the law of reciprocity and consciously believed that the risk of being burned from time to time was worth the gain the default to trust would bring far more often. Bill was willing to have a Trust Wager in which he bet on the other person being trustworthy more often than not which warranted holding this belief as an opening position. Jim recalls a conversation where Bill explained this concept to Jim. “’On one path, you first assume that someone is trustworthy and you hold that view until you have incontrovertible evidence to the contrary; on the other path, you first assume that someone isn’t trustworthy until he or she proves to you that trust is merited. You have to choose which path you want to walk and stick with it.’ Knowing that Bill seemed to trust people, I asked, ‘But what about the fact that people are not always trustworthy?’ ‘I choose to assume the best in people and accept that they sometimes disappoint.’ ‘So, you haven’t been burned much?’ I challenged. ‘Of course, I’ve been burned!’ he snapped. ‘Quite a few times. But far more often, I find that people rise to what you believe of them. If you trust them, they feel responsible to merit that trust. Have you ever considered the possibility, Jim, that by trusting people you actually help them to be more trustworthy?’”

If we’re absorbing this perspective, then we’re more likely to embrace the idea of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It’s ok if we give folk the benefit of the doubt and we get burned, then it’s a reflection on them. If we continue to blindly trust, then that reflects our weakness. If we don’t know someone, we should err on the side of giving them a chance. We should assume the best from them. With this posture we can sometimes be disappointed by their behavior. If our default to assuming positive intent from the other person isn’t rewarded, we should internalize that this isn’t a person I should trust in the future. Once bitten, twice shy. We should now use our knowledge of their past behavior to govern our willingness to interact with them in the future. We should assume that they will behave in the future similarly to how they behaved in the recent past. In other words, we should be doubtful of their ability to change. Our default position of trust being thwarted should lead to less trust being offered in the future.

We are a social species. We want to belong. We want to get along. Our success does depend on some level on how well we can manage our relations with others. Reciprocity lies at the root of much of our relations. If someone does something nice for us, we feel the need to do something nice in return for them. Our interest in reciprocity differs across individuals. Some of us are inclined to give first as a default while others of us are focused first on extracting value for our own benefit. Psychologist Adam Grant writes of this in his book, Give and Take. He cites research suggesting we fit into three broad buckets of reciprocity tendences: givers, takers, and matchers. Whichever is our preference isn’t set in stone. How we behave may be context and relationship dependent.

Takers seek to extract as much as they can from any interaction for their own personal benefit. They are adopting the posture of selfishness. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and if I don’t take care of myself no one else will. Takers are competitive, assertive, dominating folk that are after what they’re after. Matchers are those that wait to see how others behave. They then react in kind to how the other person behaved. If they are confronted with a taker, they will respond in kind. If the other person first gives, then they give. If the other person is also a matcher, then we’ve got a stand off with nothing happening. The third type of approach to reciprocity belongs to givers. These folk lead with acting for the benefit of others.

Grant details research which blows up the idea that givers are doormats. The risk of helping others we’re told is that we’ll easily be taken advantage of. Though this can happen from time to time when a giver interacts with a taker, over time givers have as much or more success than takers. Givers earn the support of others. Givers enable and help others to succeed which endears those others to, in turn, help the giver. Givers become trusted earning them reputations and relationships that provide support for decades. Grant writes, “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.” Grant encourages us regardless what our personal approach may be to consider how we would like our key service providers to act. Would you like your doctor, accountant, lawyer, electrician, dentist, plumber, or financial advisor to be a taker or a giver?

Grant offers study after study supporting givers as achievers. They don’t have less ambition or drive than takers, they have a different approach. Givers have a clear sense of duty to serving that is at the heart of their success. Givers, unfortunately, are rare which, fortunately, affords opportunity for those with this posture. Grant references studies suggesting only 8% of us embrace giving as our go to approach to interactions with others. However, when evaluating those in positions of leadership and success in their fields, givers represent a substantially higher proportion. The suggestion is that givers may be far and few between but they populate the ranks of the successful. It’s good to be a giver. Be like Bono. Not just for the opportunity at getting ahead but because they typically are both happier and more fulfilled. They live purpose driven lives committed on helping those around them.

Unfortunately, there are scorpions in the world and scorpions sting. No, we can’t do good business with bad people. Even though all of this is true, we don’t need to assume the worst of others in every interaction. If you want to stand out, it starts by affording others the benefit of a doubt. We can choose to look for the good. If burned, and we will be, we can adjust course with respect to future interactions with our scorpions. Leading with trust and goodwill towards others will over time lead you on a fruitful and more productive path. At the end of the day how we choose to view others is up to us. We can see others as scorpions and take the risk that we get what we expect or we can choose to open with a default to trust and leap our way forward.