Here’s something that won’t surprise you. The public doesn’t trust Big Business. Or Medium Business. Or even Little Business for that matter — at least not as institutions.
Americans are especially prone to this bias in a land where the common narrative in news stories, books and movies — even cartoon movies like Monsters Inc. — is to cast Big Business as the bad guy. The greedy CEO in Monsters Inc. was a spider.
The distrust is a lasting phenomenon. It didn’t suddenly appear after the recent Great Recession — though the crisis aggravated it — or the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Darden Professor Andy Wicks, the director of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at Darden, found that this enduring bad guy image worried business leaders to a great degree.
“We started back in 2006 trying to figure out what was on the minds of executives when it came to business ethics. We were shocked to find out that the number one issue by far was the public level of trust in business and executives.”
A number of Darden professors, including Wicks, Jared D. Harris, Brian Moriarty and R. Edward Freeman, helped prepare a report for managers that defined public trust, detailing why it mattered and how it impacted their businesses. They also wrote other academic articles on trust and noted that academics had explored the concept of trust in business in great depth. So why did so many academics think the subject was so important?
The reason is a practical one, says Wicks. “There’s a lot of value, because if I can trust you and you can trust me, we can lower the transactional costs. So trust is valuable.”
The danger in being trusting, Wicks says, is you may turn out to be dealing with a cheat. “You’re going to take advantage of me and I’ve not protected myself or incentivized you to do the right thing, and it falls apart,” he says.
“So the challenge is, how do you create trust?” he asks. “And how do you get the right levels within an organization so you’re not trusting too much and you’re not trusting too little?”
Wicks says that trust is particularly necessary in technology companies — such as Google or Apple — though it’s also true of any company with a complex supply chain. “If you can deliver across organizational boundaries to deliver a great product — that benefits everyone — it’s highly valuable,” he says.
“There’s a lot involved here that has a tangible value. It’s not just this abstract thing. It’s incredibly important.”
But Wicks found that despite all the academic papers about trust in organizations, “almost nobody is writing about public trust in the institution of business … at least in the abstract.”
So Wicks, and fellow Darden Professors Moriarty and Harris, compiled Public Trust in Business, published by Cambridge University Press. The three professors edited the book, which boasts authors who are experts in business, sociology, political science and philosophy.
Harris, Moriarty and Wicks contributed chapters to the book, as well as Darden Professor Bidhan L. Parmar. The book includes contributions from renowned scholars Eric M. Uslaner, Deepak Malhotra, Robert Bies, Kirsten Martin, Michael Pirson, Karen S. Cook, Oliver Schilke, Roderick Kramer, Paul Argenti, Reinhard Bachmann, Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, Rosalinde Klein Woolthuis, Bart Nooteboom, Gjalt de Jong, Laura Poppo and Donald J. Schepker.
The book, which combines the latest academic research with ideas for future research, explores long-term strategies for building and nurturing public trust in business. The authors address “core drivers of public trust, how to manage it effectively, the consequences of low public trust, and how best to address trust challenges and repair trust when it has been lost.”
The book evolved from the Ruffin Summit on Public Trust in Business held at Darden in 2009, at which over two dozen scholars — all of whom specialized in the area of trust — spoke to the global economic crisis, which itself was a crisis of trust.
“The book really is a compilation of academics who are in the forefront of studying trust. We thought we would start in the academic world — find out what the problems are — and write about that. We want to bring academic attention to the phenomenon,” Wicks says.
Those studies — that cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas — will hopefully result in solutions that could lead to a public trust strong enough to, finally, cast the CEO as a good guy instead of a spider.