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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mistrust in Business: A Nietzschean Critique

This morning I ate at a Denny’s restaurant. To my surprise, the waitress put the bill on the table along with the food at the beginning rather than end of the meal. My immediate “gut instinct” reaction was that for some reason she did not trust me. It was not as though I had walked in wearing rags, but neither was I in a business suit. Seeing that another waitress waited until the end of the meal to deliver the bill to another table, I was curious enough to ask the manager. He explained that it is Denny’s policy at breakfast to drop the check at the outset of the meal “because there is no dessert.” That a customer might want to add an item during the breakfast suggests that the policy was at the very least not well thought out. Moreover, the logical inconsistency opens up the possible of an alternative, real reason behind the policy. The manager proffered a hint in prefacing that breakfast is particularly busy at Denny’s restaurants. Although the policy could thus merely be a time-saving devise for the wait-staff, the underlying reason could be that it is more difficult for the servers to keep tabs on their respective customers. With the manager’s problematic rationale and his near passive-aggressive dismissiveness of my objection (as well as his notable refusal to compensate me even in part) serving as a sort of confirmation, I came away with the sense that “leaving without paying” was at least in part the underlying fear behind the policy. Such distrust breeds distrust, as well as resentment. In spite of making this transparent to him by indicating that I would not be generous with the tip as a result, he did not seem to grasp the link or even that it is so avoidable. Instead, he clung to the path of least resistance for himself and his restaurant.
 

In his commentary on the loss of trust in business, government and society, Michael Wolff laments to decline of trust through what he calls “consumer history.” As trust can be maintained with little or no further cost once established, Wolff is perplexed as to why more business practitioners, politicians and even religious functionaries do not rush to fill the gap.
Why are some politicians all too willing to go back on their campaign promises when in office? The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, took only five days in office early in 2013 before reversing his campaign pledge to wean Japan off of nuclear power. Why do some religious leaders apparently not understand the value of trust in something as intimate as one’s spirituality? The Vatican’s initial reaction to the disclosure of priests sexually molesting children was to look the other way, as if the “trust issue” would somehow go away. Why don’t business managers invest more in authentic trust as distinguished from “brand management”? For example, the photos of food on the menus at Denny’s exaggerate the actual amount of food. The duplicity alone can eviscerate trust as well as cause considerable resentment.
Pointing to the hidden invasiveness of some businesses, Wolff asks his readers, “Would you trust Amazon? Do you trust any company whose main mission is to collect your data? You might acquiesce to it, but do you trust it—or anyone whose central activity is to keep tabs on you? Google, founded on a do-gooder credo, is now the leviathan of data collection and opacity.” Facebook is another such hegemon, whose Instagram announced “it was selling the pictures people had entrusted it with.” That is to say, a person’s own pictures of oneself, one’s friends, family and even home unknowingly put on the market and possibly purchased by marketers. If anything calls out for a constitutional right to privacy, such a practice surely does.
Wolff views the decline of trust in commerce and politics as either a threat to capitalism and democracy or an opportunity for a historical turn-around. In viewing information overload as salient in the crisis, he has absorbed too much of his information age. The problem is one of attitude rather than information. Might it be that people working in business no longer trust the general public and thus their own customers, and thus do not expect to be trusted in return. Why work to build up trust if one doesn’t think one will be trusted anyway? The mistrust of business managers, sales people, and customer service reps creates mistrust, which is directed back on them. The result is an overly tedious manner of “check and double check.”
For instance, when I make hotel reservations, I take extra time to ask whether I would be charged for a room safe whether I use it or not. I ask whether there are any other mandatory charges. In terms of “local calls,” I have even asked which area-codes are covered. On the other side, hotels and especially motels now regularly take deposits as much as $200 for a night’s stay in addition to the room charge. Customers with debit cards are especially mistrusted, as per the differential policy concerning deposits. It is apparently not enough to take down a customer’s driver’s license number. The hypocrisy in mislabeling customers as “hotel guests” only adds to a customer’s sense of duplicity and thus mistrust. At the very least, the practitioners come off as fake with respect to their use of language. What else might they be hiding?  What hidden charges might one find at the end of one’s stay if one does not ask enough questions before reserving a room?
The social glue that lubricates the system of capitalism becomes sticky, and the social bonds even between strangers become increasingly frayed. A similar stickiness has seeped into Congress, also due to a decline in mutual trust. Even in religion, parishioners now take greater precautions regarding what exactly their kids will be doing with clergy. A parent keeping an eye on a priest is not likely to enter into a close spiritual connection with him.
Generally speaking, commercial transactions, representative democracy, and religion all become more difficult. If trust is as easy to muster and as valuable to have as Wolff suggests, the need for the difficulty is all the more inexplicable. For instance, a social media business model should pop up that stresses the privacy of user information. The problem is not too much information; rather, a certain attitude shirts trust as a potential asset. It is not only selfishness, greed and a lack of consideration (and respect) for others. One need only go to Miami to get loads of that sordid cocktail.
There has perhaps been a proliferation of cheating and thus taking advantage of others, while giving up on the value that trust could proffer. The rise of the great cities has substituted anonymity for knowing one’s customers and banker. Anonymity is fertile ground for mistrust as well as duplicity. Furthermore, as the modern business model has come to stress getting as much money as possible out of one’s customers, duplicity has come at the expense of trust.
For example, with the advent of so many differently-priced tiers of seats in coach alone on planes and the complex baggage-charge “regulations” has come greater uncertainty for the customer at the airport. The distrust concerns what one will actually have to pay even after having purchased a ticket. Similarly, a customer who pays for a reserved hotel room at the hotel with cash or a debit card may find herself stranded because a sizable, hitherto unmentioned deposit is also “required.” To subject travelers to possibly being stuck in another city is nothing short of cruel. When the pettiness has to do with secondary issues (i.e., a deposit rather than the room charge itself), the profit-motive is not the driving force behind the cruelty.
This is finally the core of the problem that eclipses trust: a desire to inflict passive aggression accompanied by the instinctual need to dominate others. Seen in this light, the inhabitants of the modern shopping mall on both sides of the counter are not as far removed from other species as one might think. The problem can be put more abstractly as the hypertrophy of the instincts of cowardly aggression and dominance. In fact, the combination may even be a subtle form of sadism that has been made socially acceptable by its sheer ubiquity in the public square.
As long as “control issues” and an overwhelming urge to inflict passive aggression set the contours for public interactions in business, government and society, nothing much will change concerning the dearth of trust. Amassing trust beyond the superficial sort from branding ads and management by “presentment” will be nearly impossible for businesses unless their managers and employees relax their grip on the pettiness at the expense of long-term profitability. Unwilling to face their underlying dominant instincts, business managers and employees will continue to conclude that customers are inherently untrustworthy, even abusive, rather than retaliatory as well. Rather than being untrustworthy, customers subjected to close-minded yet supercilious pettiness are merely returning passive aggression for the passive aggression and resisting the unfairness in the arrogant dominance. To be sure, this does not account for every rude customer, but neither can a customer’s frustration be necessarily relegated so utterly conveniently as idiosyncratic. Power that presumes it can’t be wrong is naturally infuriating, especially if access to the supervisor is closed off as when customer “service” employees convenient “lose” calls while “transferring” them to a manager. Gate-keeping enforced on callers against their will is about as naked as passive aggression conjoined to a lust for power gets in today’s retail sector.
Even so, the ubiquity of passive aggression as a weapon and a fixation on dictating the terms in even the most banal transactions is still nearly invisible to managers, employees and customers. This makes the task of restoring trust all the more difficult, if not impossible. That is, the link between the excessive, albeit camouflaged, aggression and dominance and the resulting resentment is almost never revealed or made conscious on either side of the counter or telephone. This blockage is itself rather puzzling. Distrust is sensed and yet not connected to its roots. As a result, customers put up with much too many plays for control and acts of passive aggression in the name of “policy” while many managers and problematic employees oriented to “presentation” as though on a stage are simply out of touch with what is driving them.
As valuable as trust is, it will be thwarted as long as people choose, enable or react in kind to excessive passive aggression and dominance rather than confront them in themselves. Aggression and dominance are both causes and effects of mistrust. Wolff suggests that “nobody quite knows what trust is anymore. Hence, even people who think they are selling trust are so often selling phoniness or duplicity.” Sadly, such people come to view their fake demeanor as the epitome of professionalism. Actually, the fake smile is fueled by anger and an irresistible urge to dominate others. The masks are enabled by an approach to management that is oriented to appearances rather than attitude. Much too often, professionalism is a weapon of pride rather than a mark of maturity.
In the context of modernity, everyone is a professional in his or her own infallible yet purblind eyes. This is deemed so even without a college education. From this seemingly-solid basis, it is easy to assume a perch from which one presumes the right to dominate and inflict pain—indirectly of course given the underlying weakness. As Nietzsche suggests, dislodging such a “new bird of prey” can be incredibly difficult, even for the strong. Those from among the weak who are nonetheless driven to dominate the rest of the herd and even the strong are not strong enough to dominate. Therefore, the new birds of prey inflict pain both out of their anguish for being too weak to lead and as a means of achieving the dominance they crave. In contrast, the self-confident strong have no need to be cruel. The weak have somehow been able to beguile the strong through guilt (modern morality) into accepting the artificial dominance. That is, the dominating birds from among the flock have somehow been able to foist their illusion of superiority on the strong, who thus unnecessarily submit even though they can fly higher.
By the twenty-first century, corporate “branding” of trust, a dominating form of weakness claiming a share of social reality, had come to replace higher trust that is authentic. Even so, human beings in any age instinctively know authentic trust. We can sense strength (and weakness). This intuition comes out of strength, and yet it has been insufficient to dislodge the fake, one-sided trust that is so convenient to the petty.

Whereas Wolff looks to technology to prioritize information as a solution (as if the problem of trust were predominantly cognitive), I contend that attitude-change resides at the core of any possibility for a restoration of trust in commerce as well as politics and religion. Perhaps the solution is as simple as replacing the excess of pride, pettiness and especially passive aggression with even just a little heart-felt compassion that goes with serving others rather than contrived corporate scripts. As simple as this recipe may be, putting it into action would face considerable resistance from those culprits who presume they cannot be wrong or at fault and yet are in power. Such is the nature of weakness that seeks to dominate beyond its innate pith.


Source:

Michael Wolff, “Trust Used To Be Worth Something,” USA Today, January 7, 2013.