It’s a matter of trust

In the words of Aristotle: “Trust allows groups to flourish, to achieve excellence”. And yet, as I found out in conversation with a Cape Town management specialist, trust is in seriously short supply in business today.

ROGER Stewart reminds me of my grandfather. We’re discussing trust in 21st century business – or, to be more precise, the deficit thereof – when he says: “The value of trustworthiness has passed us by. We used to conduct business on each other’s word…based on trust. If something went wrong, we’d talk to each other…sort it out. Deals were worked out and concluded on the back of cigarette boxes.”

Exactly. That’s when I am reminded of my grandfather; a strapping KwaZulu-Natal farmer whose milk, polo ponies, beef, potatoes and timber deals were scratched out in pencil on the back of empty Rothman packs, and filed in a tumbling pile in the dust encrusted cubby-hole of his pale blue Toyota Stallion bakkie.

What happened to old-world “if you say you will, I expect you will” trust? How did we become a nation whose decisions and actions are, above all else, steered by suspicion and directed by distrust?

Stewart – who is the senior partner for Business Sculptors, a board and management consultancy that specialises in corporate growth, renewal and recovery, and a faculty member of USB-ED – believes that burgeoning bureaucracy, and the increasing use of exceedingly complex, pile-high contracts in business have all but annihilated our capacity to trust one another.

Today’s brand of trust is, he believes, so contractualised that the faith it implies people have in one another has essentially been abandoned in favour of the documents, risking the paralysis of relationships at the first hiccup.

This, he says, is evident at every echelon of business: “Consider what is happening at board level, for example. The current codes of corporate governance are underpinned by the basic premise that you cannot trust the director. This, despite the fact that he allegedly fulfils a fiduciary relationship with the company. Fiduciary? By definition the word means that the relationship is one that is founded on, or relating to, faith or trust. And yet the codes insist on extensive checks and controls that indicate that the underlying driver is distrust. For sure, an ingrained lack of trust is countered by checking every step and controlling every procedure.”

So, shareholders do not trust directors. Directors exhaust themselves trying to prove that they can be trusted. Like a FICA-compliant populace, they provide reams and reams of documentation and declarations that, says Stewart, do not necessarily prove anything at all. And then, if they still want the job after that, they are obliged – by the codes of governance – to implement an exhaustive range of central controls, which might suit a mechanised system but which are detrimental if humans, rather than robots, operate your business.

Although it is widely accepted that trust is essential to achieve a productive, satisfying and happy business environment, he argues that many contemporary hierarchical controls and corporate systems are largely based on a lack of trust: “In more and more cases, employees and their work are not checked against reasonable double-data quality measures but rather because employers and managers distrust them and their abilities.”

Distrust erodes accountability. It is self-perpetuating. Suspicion wears away working relationships and undermines people’s confidence in themselves and their colleagues. When trust is lacking, relationships are characterised by adversarial attitudes: us versus them, or me versus you. Performance is compromised as all focus and energy are directed at manipulation and butt-covering rather than working together with a common ambition.

“Lack of trust is polluting organisations on a grand scale,” says Stewart. “At the same time, society is less becoming less and less trusting. It seems that the key principles that should govern our behaviour – like the real belief in the honesty of another and the absence of suspicion regarding his or her motives or practices – are not well understood.”

It is simple, he stresses. If you trust someone, it influences his or her behaviour and performance. It encourages them to be accountable and accountable people are, by default, trustworthy: “The value of trust and the understanding that trust should be a precursor to a commercial transaction are not appreciated. It is a huge problem.”

So, what is the solution? What will it take to turn things around and initiate a process of trust? A great deal of guts, surely, and being willing to take a risk and take the first step. What’s more, people who have been denied trust are unlikely find it easy to accept responsibility instantaneously. Rebuilding confidence and trust is going to take time.

And be prepared: you are likely to come up against plenty of cynics in the process. You’ll recognise them as those who declare their approval of the notion of trust – but always find reasons why they won’t trust this person, at this time, in this situation. That might be the best time to quote the words of American educator, author and activist, Booker Washington, who said: “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him”.

And, to seal the deal, why not write Booker’s quote on the back of a cigarette box?

(This article was first published in the University of Stellenbosch Graduate School of Business’s Agenda magazine in November 2007.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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