This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

Some years ago, I had an experience with an airline that shed light on the difference between a fake win-win and a real win-win. In short, the difference boiled down to incentives. The lesson for us all:  mind your motives. Are yours always as squeaky clean as they could be?

It all started with the aim of an on-time departure. As I was getting settled in my seat, I noticed that the nearby flight attendant was particularly smiley and up-beat, urging everyone to get buckled up and ready to go in a most effervescent way.

I acknowledged her demeanor as she paused near my row. “We’re working hard for an on-time departure today and it looks like we’re going to make it!” she beamed.

“Wow,” I said, a bit taken aback by the commitment and the positivity.

Then she added, “And there’s $50 in it for me if we leave the gate on time!”

Apparently, this airline had recently implemented a program where certain employees could earn up money every month in incentive pay by achieving high rankings for things like on-time performance.

“Oh,” I said, feeling suddenly way less impressed.

[Tweet “Incentives are fine, just not enough if you want to build #trust. #getreal”]We then left on time and arrived on time.

On the surface, this sure seemed like a win-win:  I won because we left and arrived on time; the flight attendant won because she got her bonus. The corporate incentive program worked! Or did it?

I say it didn’t. Not really. It achieved a desirable result (on-time arrival). Only that result came with–what’s the word I’m looking for–baggage. Which is why I call this a fake win-win, not a real win-win.

Looking through the lens of the trust equation, my friendly flight attendant’s self-orientation (“S”) was sky high. And therein lies the problem:  the source of her actions was her own benefit, not mine.

Here are some conclusions I draw from this story:

  • Incentives are fine, just not enough if you want to build trust, not just get a certain behavior.
  • When one or more parties in a business transaction leaves that transaction without feeling cared about, it’s a loss, not a win.
  • Real win-wins are motivated by caring, not by numbers.
  • Motives aren’t only spoken; they’re exuded.

Being rigorous about motives is important if you want to build exceptional levels of trust with others. Don’t let the fake win-wins you are creating fool you, because they’re probably not fooling anyone else.

Special thanks to Noelle Mykolenko who once told a similar story that was the original inspiration for this post.

Make It Real

This week, check your motives. Just make note. What’s behind what you’re doing and saying? Don’t punish yourself if you discover your “S” is big (you’re human, after all). Just notice for now.

Learn More


Read more about the trap of high self-orientation, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on the trust equation basics in Chapter 4 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).