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Trust, Communication, and the Science of Well-Being


Today, the National Collegiate Athletic Association held an unprecedented news conference to announce equally unprecedented sanctions against a university, Penn State. Notably, the NCAA took only 11 days to announce punitive and corrective sanctions against the university, after former FBI director Louis Freeh shared details of his investigation.

Demonstrating trust leadership

Referring to the NCAA’s decision to take swift action, chair of the NCAA executive committee Ed Ray said, “I heard not a single voice in the executive committee [or] the division 1 board that wanted to step back and not take action now.” He continued by saying there was a “unanimous sense that we needed to act, and we needed to act quickly and effectively.”

Simply by acting and providing clear direction to Penn State athletes and students, the NCAA gave these young people a sense of closure so that they may get on with their lives. The clarity also benefits colleges and universities throughout the country as the broader community of higher learning is free to set a purposeful eye to the future.

Relying on values as a guide

Describing the terrible events at Penn State, both men today repeatedly spoke of balancing athletic success with academic values. According to NCAA president Mark Emmert, institutions need to ensure that the academic values of integrity, honesty, and responsibility are not subverted by a winning-at-all-costs mentality.  Importantly, these values define a culture that says success in one area cannot come at the expense of another, and certainly not at the expense of individuals’ rights.

Emmert also frequently explained the committee’s efforts to devise sanctions that would have a meaningful effect on the institution without causing unnecessary harm to students. He expressed that dilemma in this question, “How do you craft sanctions that are punitive and corrective for a real culture change at Penn State University with minimal impact on innocent parties?”

In language that reflects challenges in other sectors of the economy, Emmert described the inherent risks to institutional culture. “One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, or even too big to challenge,” he said. Full remarks are available at

Lessons abound

The learning opportunities for business leaders and politicians in these remarks run deep. Consider where the current economy might be if leaders had acted decisively and thoroughly in the early shadows of 2008 and 2009 to put the past behind us.

Instead, the fallout from the crisis continues to drag on us over four years later, leaving an overhang of uncertainty that stymies growth. This lack of momentum inhibits investment and innovation, which reduces hiring, and so on.

Trust matters in this nation of hard-working citizens. And, though some argue differently, the importance of integrity transcends financial differences. When the markets fell in ’08 investors were hurt, homeowners saw property values tumble, and many lost vast sums to the likes of Madoff. As a result, Americans rich and poor share a generalized fear of being left with the short end of the stick.

While justice, in its simplest form is not always possible, leadership is. Decisive, values-based leadership restores trust in institutions and inspires individuals.  In that respect, the NCAA provided a strong and courageous example today.

Note: Photo of Penn State flag by Mike Pettigano

As a teacher of communication skills, Dr. Stephen R. Covey focused on making us all better listeners, not talkers.  In fact, he was emphatic about a type of listening he described as empathetic.  Essentially, empathetic listening is about understanding and appreciating the other person’s point of view. On his five-level scale of listening behaviors, empathetic listening stands at the top.

Can analytics improve empathetic listening?

Businesses with hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of customers cannot feasibly have an empathetic conversation with each person. So, they designed other ways of getting to know their customers. Partly in recognition of the limited value focus groups offer, and partly because technology has made analytics affordable, businesses today invest heavily in data.

These changes spark another age-old question: Is it possible to hear what someone really wants when you control the questions? Or, in this case, when you predetermine the data? Controlling the questions is what Covey referred to as listening level number three, Selective Listening, two steps away from the desired state.

Analytics provide tremendous value to business, unquestionably. However, they are not a stand-in for empathetic listening, and they don’t provide a road map for trust-building communications strategies.  Just like focus groups, analytics keep the company in control, picking and choosing information based on marketing goals. Empathetic listening, however, seeks to understand the whole picture, which doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet.

Trust communication skills matters today

These are times of uncertainty; fear looms heavily and influences what we buy, how we buy, and how we share. Consumers, and employees for that matter, are no longer motivated by marketing messages or new products alone. Communications teams, therefore, need not spend long hours crafting and refining the perfect message. Instead, communicators should find new ways to listen and understand.

Covey’s essential lessons on listening provide a valuable guide for communicators and business leaders who seek to connect with customers in a meaningful way. Interestingly, his book: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a main source of Covey’s teachings about listening, was published in 1989. This is notable because the 80’s and 90’s were a time when mass consumerism drove our economy. Marketing slogans and corporate messages held more sway during that great age of advertising. The fact that Covey chose to focus on listening at a time when telling was effective reveals the originality of his work.

Saying goodbye

Stephen Covey passed away this week. He will be remembered for his many contributions to business and society. I will remember most his sharpening of the sword, his commitment to finding the kernel of every challenge, and his many ways of demonstrating compassion.

According to Gallup’s most recent confidence polls, Americans are not impressed with the way things are going. Public schools, organized religion and TV news are just a few of the institutions, both public and private, that fell to new lows based on Gallup’s data dating back to 1973.

Learning that confidence is low doesn’t register as news, however these levels are noteworthy. In fact, the report cites that more than half of institutions measured by Gallup have hit bottom at some point in the last five years.  Also interesting is the broad mix of public and private institutions that received low levels of approval.

Bank confidence falls

Banks in particular hit new lows in this report with only 21% of Americans expressing high levels of confidence which Gallup says is half of the 42% average for banks since the company began tracking this metric in 1979.

Congress fared worse. Only 13% of Americans expressed high levels of confidence in Congress in the same report. That number is down from December of last year when Gallup recorded record high anti-incumbent sentiment with 76% of Americans saying members of Congress did not deserve re-election.  In 2010, only 11% of Americans expressed confidence in Congress, “the lowest Gallup has ever measured for any institution.”

Root causes are widespread

Seeking causes is not always part of Gallup’s polling procedures. In this case, the company’s assessment points to the broader environment. “Thus, the declining confidence seems to be part of a broader pattern, rather than a product of isolated issues facing individual institutions.”

However, the company’s website provides a link to the chairman’s blog which offers more conclusive opinions.  Jim Clifton, Gallup Chairman and CEO references widespread lack of leadership here in the US and around the world as chief among the causes of widespread negative sentiment.

More interesting perhaps are the implications of extreme levels of low confidence on business. It’s certainly more difficult to convince consumers to trust an insurance or investment company in such an environment.  Even public schools need to recognize the challenges that surround them and to increase the frequency and depth of communication with stakeholders.

As always, it’s important to know the environment you work in, to understand and anticipate stakeholder expectations, and to respond accordingly.