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A Tale of Two Trustees

A Tale of Two Trustees

Getting in the right state of mind

Trust officer A starts her day with a look at several reports of the previous day’s goings-on in her trust accounts: cash inflows and outflows, investment activity and so forth.  Her trained eye detects nothing out of order.

Then she prepares for the annual meeting with a beneficiary that she will be hosting over lunch.  She takes a meticulous look at the file.  No mistakes here!

She contemplates the impending meeting, reminding herself that it’s her responsibility to be cautious.  Her motto:  Better safe than sorry.

The lunch takes place at a carefully selected restaurant.  Friendly conversation is interspersed with a review of the trust’s investment performance.  When the beneficiary presents a request for a distribution from his trust, trust officer A politely says “no,” and explains why the language of the trust leaves her no choice.

When the lunch is over, A is relieved that it went so well.

Across town, trust officer B’s day begins in a similar manner—checking the daily reports to assure herself that no errors were made.  While preparing for her beneficiary meeting, she, too, reviews the file for accuracy.

But now their routines diverge.  Trust officer B takes time to think about the beneficiary and what could make the meeting successful.  She reflects upon other meetings, during which she’s been able to contribute to a beneficiary’s growth toward maturity.  If she had a motto, it would be: “Be prudent, but make it happen!”

When the distribution request is made at the restaurant, trust officer B describes why she would have some difficulty approving it.  She asks the beneficiary: “What do you hope to accomplish by making this request?” and then “Why is that important to you?”

The beneficiary is surprised by the inquiry, yet treats it with a mix of candor and earnestness.  Soon, they’re brainstorming other ways of accomplishing his goal. Does he have sufficient assets outside the trust? Is there a different way to look at his goal—one that would lead to a request to which trust officer B could say “yes”?

At the end of meeting, the beneficiary leaves with a new game plan—and trust officer B feels elated.


Two Mindsets

So much for our parallel stories.  Now, how might we explain the trust officers’ similar behaviors when precision is called for, but differing behaviors while preparing for and conducting their respective beneficiary meetings?

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia University in New York offers insight. For 18 years, she’s been conducting research about what she calls  “prevention-focused” and “promotion-focused” mindsets.  Her forthcoming book—Focus (Hudson Street Press)—will show this mental adjustment at work in an array of settings.

We’re in a prevention-focused mindset when the idea is to stop bad things from happening.  In our tale, both trust officers were prevention-focused when scrutinizing the reports and files with an eye toward avoiding slip-ups that could lead to loss.

When in a promotion-focused mindset, we seek advancement, growth and gain.  And that’s how the behaviors of trust officers A and B diverged when preparing for and conducting their beneficiary meetings.

Trust officer A remained prevention-focused when, for example, she declined the beneficiary’s request for a disbursement.  After all, on its face, the request didn’t comply with the language of the trust. Case closed.

Before she got to the restaurant, B shifted to a promotion-focused mindset.  She did so by imagining a successful meeting, etc.  She was then able to engage the beneficiary in defining a way to secure a gain, while acting within the constraints of the trust.

Few will dispute the rightness of each trust officer “sweating the details” as they started their respective days.  Whether B’s shift to a promotion-focus was the better way to go is open to debate.  That’s for a different time and place. As a general rule, context will dictate which mindset is best.

What’s important here is knowing whether we can voluntarily direct our mindset.  And if the answer is yes, how do we go about doing so?


Matching Mindset to Task

Dr. Halvorson says that although each of us has a default mindset, we can indeed take steps to shift our mindset to match the task we are tackling.  We do it all the time! Planning a birthday party entails a different kind of slant than does preparing a tax return.

I suspect that trustees are most often comfortable with a prevention-focused mindset. So here are tips to shift to promotion-focus when circumstances warrant.

Do what trust officer B did.  Mull over your hopes and aspirations for the matter at hand.  Reflect upon other times when you or others contributed to someone’s growth and gain.  Come up with a growth-oriented motto.

Here’s my take: Our ability to recognize and deliberately change our mindset just might be a game-changer.  Please let us know what you think.

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