Re-Building Trust in Business

Extracts from a talk given by Robert Phillips (@citizenrobert) at the launch of the ICAEW's Corporate Governance Group. Other speakers included Trevor Phillips, Angela Knight and Daniel Finkelstein. Tuesday 20 June 2017

  1. We will never re-build trust if we don't learn to speak the truth. Trust is forever fragile. In the new world, we need to stop imposing corporate bureaucracy, targets and rules and start co-producing frameworks of human principles - putting the common good of the organisation, its people and society first.
  2. Talking about trust has become a national syndrome - like business Tourette's. CEOs, like politicians, continue to treat trust as a message. Trust is no longer strong, stable or certain. It is fragile, fractured by technology, the collapse of hierarchies, the rise of networks and individual empowerment. Put simply, if you want to be more trusted, try behaving well (or at least better), rather than just talking about it.
  3. Messaging “trust” really is not the answer. In business, why should we trust Volkswagen when it knowingly misled the world on emissions data? Why would we want to re-build trust with them?

    Our right to withhold trust from the likes of VW, Thomas Cook, Sports Direct or Barclays is legitimate and powerful. It speaks to the new accountability of business to citizens and society. New models can be built on this basis.

  4. And why do we continue to chase institutional trust, when we could concentrate on building networks of trust between real people, addressing critical issues?
  5. The fourth industrial revolution has made it impossible to re-build trust in second- or third industrial revolution ways. To flourish today, trust needs to be re-built through networks, peers… and real people. New trust models must reflect the world as it is.
  6. Different working principles are needed in business. I have identified four: activism, co-production, vulnerability and dissent.

    These principles represent a total rejection of the exhausted thinking around communications, leadership and trust.

    Activism recognises the modern organisation more as a social movement, in which the CEO is the Chief Social Activist, working to address major societal issues: social mobility & inclusion; poverty; climate change; resource scarcity; automation and the role of humans in the workplace, to name a few. These are the challenges where business can lead and make a difference, while still making a fair profit.

    CEOs should co-produce strategies and solutions with wise crowds of employees, customers and stakeholders - building a generative dialogue. Hence their organisations become open, adaptive and creative. They think differently about risk and stop trying to control, contain or mitigate it.

    CEOs also need to admit they don’t have all the answers and re-learn the ability to say sorry. In this new model, business leaders make themselves as vulnerable to their employees, customers and stakeholders as those constituencies have traditionally been to them.

    Dissent is welcome – because no one can learn if they do not listen. People have to be forced out of their boardroom echo chambers. I call this “standing naked”. Jericho’s pioneering work on Responsible Tax with KPMG and the Future of Work is Human project speak to this approach.


  7. - Think about trustworthiness instead.
    - Think about new business models.
    - Think about citizens & society-first: put human value before shareholder value.
    - Think about where we can each make a difference.
    - Think about coming together to address to huge societal challenges we all face.
    - Think about accountability, not measurement

    A slavish adherence to old models and old thinking will make things worse, not better. It will erode what little trust is still left to cherish. The good news is we can all do something; think and act differently; and build powerful coalitions of change.

    Business must stop talking and start doing. Business leaders need to stand naked before those they represent. They must find the moral courage to ditch old ways and lead with a new agenda, focused on people not just profit. Time is running out.
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