Judging others: Honesty comes first

Source: The Straits Times, Wednesday August 26 2009

We are taught knowledge in school and university. How much knowledge we have acquired and how well we use it are fairly accurately reflected in examination results. But in life, judging another person’s character can often be more important than judging his IQ, which correlates fairly closely with academic results.

In judging a person, I have always placed more weight on character than intelligence. Of the various attributes of character – such as honesty, courage, kindness and righteousness – honesty is the most important.

An honest person can be trusted. In dealing with someone I trust, I need not waste energy wondering if I am being deceived. I can also be totally frank with that person and this will facilitate whatever both of us are trying to achieve. This kind of working relationship is similar to that among old Chinese businessmen: Their word is their bond and ther is no need for a written contract.

This is the way I deal with my friends and comrades. If I do not trust them, they would not be part of my circle of friends and comrades int he first place.

The senior staff at the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), which I head, are encouraged to go home and spend time with their families when all their patients are stable and their work has been completed, though it may not be 5.30pm yet. But if there is an emergency at 1am and they are needed, I expect them to be there as soon as possible. To date, my senior doctors have not betrayed my trust and I am very proud of them.

As a leader, if I cannot trust my staff, then I cannot run the organisation on the basis that my staff consist of responsible and honourable people, and I would have to be constantly looking over their shoulders.

In NNI, over the last six years, I have tried to make honesty and responsibility part of our ethos. It was easier to get my peers to agree with this ethos. Now, I am trying to achieve the same acceptance among lower-ranking staff and I can already see the improvement.

As a subordinate, if I cannot trust my superior, then I would rather not be part of that company or organisation.

On first contact, it is not easy to decide whether a person can be trusted. If the person tries too hard to impress – for example, with his or her appearance, eloquence or overly friendly demeanour – red flags go up for me. I have found this useful first cut in judging character.

A more accurate judgment will have to depend on repeated interactions with the person and observations of his behaviour. Whether the person is consistent in his expressed motives, whether he tries to carry out what he says, whether he is sincere – these will become clearer and help one judge if he is trustworthy.

With regard to myself, what you see is what you get, I have only one face; I wear no mask or make-up – literally. What I say is what I will try to do. Hence, most people find it easy to trust me, regardless of whether or not they like me.

Some people have more than one face. Depending on whom they are dealing with, they choose which of their several faces to show. That is why people high up in our society may find it difficult to judge a person.

I have the advantage of having friends from different walks of life. On several occasions, I get feedback from them that particular individuals show them different faces from the ones they show higher-ups. That immediately tells me that such individuals cannot be trusted.

Finally, and I purposely leave it to the last, there is what has been called “sixth sense”. Mine has been accuragte more often than can be accounted for by chance alone. A sixth sense helps me judge individuals with whom I have not yet had repeated interactions.

I suspected there is a scientifc basis to sixth sense. It is based on fuzzy logic. One assesses the person as a whole package, giving different weightage to his knowledge, honesty and friendliness – and whether the last is genuine or otherwise. His appearance, especially if he smiles with his mouth and not his eyes; his attire and speech; whether he looks one in the eye when speaking; how he carries himeself – all these, in combination, can give us an insight into a person.

In everyday life, we have to deal with a wide variety of people whether or not we trust them. If we want to avoid committing a mistake, we need to know whom we can trust and whom we need to handle with caution. This s a necessary skill for survival and success.

Some people have a special talent for this. Others learn slowly through many new contacts, but they never become as good as those with a natural talent for judging people, like the late Lim Kim San.

Character and intelligence do not always correlate. A leader needs to have both character and intelligence – more so than a person in a position of lesser importance. Self-awareness is important too, because a good leader will ensure his team includes people with talents he lacks. This does not demean him. Indeed, self-knowledge is a very important trait among leaders.

I run a small but efficient organisation. I trust my staff and my staff trust me. We work as a team for a common purpose – the welfare of our patients.

The patients, too, need to trust my doctors. But to discuss bedside manners would take another articles. Suffice to say that patients can sense sincerity. I do not look pretty, I do not dress well and my approach to my patients can be frank and blunt – perhaps blunt to a fault. But I have patients who have been with me for 20-30 years. If I were to advise a newly minted doctor on how to deal with patients, the one quality I would emphasise is sincerity.

Sincerity begets trust.