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Ethics in the Workplace 9: The Renewal of Trust

What is trust?

Trust is about confidence and faith.

If you trust a person or an organisation you expect them to act not only in their own interest but in your interest also. You have confidence in them keeping their word and doing what they say they will do. You have faith in their reliability and consistency. If they fail to meet these expectations it diminishes your trust.

Trust is a success factor in any project, mission or endeavour. It is a prerequisite for the flourishing of groups, communities, businesses or nations. If trust fails then cooperation, collaboration and even healthy competition become untenable.

More than this, trust underlies the structural integrity of any company or business. If your managers, your colleagues and the people who report to you are untrustworthy, if a culture of distrust develops, then the social architecture of your business is heading for collapse.

Trust underwrites the interaction between businesses. If external businesses dishonour their commitments, to meet their contractual obligations or to pay their debts then you will stop working with them. If businesses became universally untrustworthy, the survival of the business community would be in jeopardy. This is why states riven by corruption do not thrive.

The power of the law cannot replace the loss of trust, since the law itself depends on trust. We trust our judges and juries to act fairly, applying the law equitably and without prejudice.

Yet something has changed in our society. It seems we have entered an era of broken promises and lost trust, when we no longer believe in our business leaders, our politicians, our journalists, or even in our ‘experts’. If trust enables society, then lost trust disables it. When we consider the many crises facing us today, it no longer seems alarmist to suggest that the loss of trust has become an existential threat to the world we know.

So how do we restore trust? And how do we know who should be trusted?

DANGER!

Loss of trust!
Avoid at all costs!

Who can you trust?

Earlier in this series we considered what it means to be an ethical colleague. I suggested that an ethical colleague is someone who embraces three very simple and uncontroversial moral values: to nurture others; to nurture the wider community; and to nurture the biological world. An ethical colleague is honest, consistent, and interested not only in their own well-being but also in yours. The ethical colleague understands and takes responsibility for the impact their actions.

As with all of us, the ethical colleague must deal with a complex range of inherited evolutionary traits, some of which encourage ethical behaviour, some of which do not. They will seek to sublimate or divert the less helpful of these traits (such as aggressiveness, over-assertiveness, acquisitiveness and the urge to dominate), and encourage those traits within their character which contribute to moral behaviour (such as compassion, a sense of duty, a sense of fairness, the instinct to collaborate with others).

These characteristics effectively define someone of integrity – and thus provide a straightforward and yet powerful answer to our question.

Who can you trust?

Virtually by definition, you can trust a moral person.

Trust in the workplace

So, in the workplace, we can trust those of our colleagues who are moral. A moral colleague will look out for you. They will be honest with you. They will stand by their word. Morality defines the characteristics that make a person worthy of your trust – therefore the person you can trust is the moral one.

However, while this convincingly applies to our peers in the workplace, we must also ask if it is applicable to our business leaders.

Who can you trust?

Morality defines the specific characteristics which make a person worthy of our trust

However, while this convincingly applies to ourselves and our peers in the workplace, we must also ask if it is equally applicable to our business leaders and managers.

Why trust a manager?

There is an imbalance of power in the relationships we have with our leaders, executives or managers – yet this need not compromise their entitlement to our trust. If they are moral, displaying the characteristics I outline above and explored here, then our needs, interests and well-being will matter to them alongside their own. A degree of selflessness is a crucial attribute of the ethical manager.

Should you discover that your manager’s motives are solely self-interested, that they see you as a ‘work delivery unit’ and nothing more, then you will find yourself unable to trust them. As a result you will become uninspired, unenthused, less creative and less productive. Trust is an enabler. It helps businesses thrive, as well as being essential to society as a whole.

This is increasingly recognised within the business community. Progressive businesses are now demanding higher levels of integrity from their executives. Lapses in ethical standards generate a strong likelihood of managers or execs finding themselves summarily fired.

So the answer to whether you can trust your manager is a simple one: ‘Yes – so long as they are moral.’

Can businesses be trusted?

What type of businesses can we trust?
The pattern to my answers is no doubt becoming apparent. Honesty generates trust. Integrity and inclusiveness generate trust. If you are asking what type of business you can trust as a stakeholder or a client, then your answer is that you can trust an ethical business: a business with morality as well as profit at its heart, a business which commits itself not just to efficiency, market dominance and share value, but also to the individuals who work within it, to the customers or clients it serves, to the surrounding community and to the environment.

Not only is this a trustworthy business, it is the type of business you will want to work for or lead. It is the type of business you will want to buy from – because you can be sure that integrity underlies the services, products or goods it provides.

The business you can trust

Is a business with morality as well as profit at its heart

The normalisation of selfishness

So why have we lost trust in so many aspects of our society? Why do we trust our business leaders less than in the past?

I would suggest that two key factors have contributed to this:

  • The normalisation of selfishness
  • The politicisation of language

From the 1980’s onwards, in an attempt to turbocharge the already highly successful and beneficial market economy, our politicians and economists have encouraged a view of humans as purely selfish entities. They argue that not only is this human nature, but that it is also a good in itself. Selfishness powers the consumer-orientated economy, helps businesses become profitable and generates a ‘trickle-down effect’ which – it is claimed – benefits everyone.

And there have indeed been dividends from this approach, particularly in poorer countries where overall poverty has been significantly reduced.

Yet this emphasis on selfishness, and on profit at all costs, is now seen by many, both within and outside of the business communities, to be failing our society both ethically and economically, while also fuelling distrust. You cannot trust a person or an organisation if their sole driving force is self-interest. When it comes to the crunch, the interests of a selfish person or selfish organisation will always trump yours. They won’t be looking for ‘win-win’ outcomes; they will be seeking an outcome of ‘winner takes all’.

The politicisation of language

A second phenomena which has undermined trust within our society is the politicisation of language – something I discuss in detail in my book Ethical Intelligence. Over the past few decades, with the benefit of market research and psychological insight, language has increasingly become a means of manipulating others, in contrast to communicating meaning. The impact of words rather than their informational content has become paramount: a transition encouraged by a culture which prioritises selfishness. After all, if selfishness is my priority, then why shouldn’t I use language manipulatively, to get my own way? Political populism and advertising have both encouraged this trend – but it is a trend which bodes badly for trust. Where words are being used to manipulate me rather than communicate with me or inform me, where a person will say anything to influence me to their own advantage, how can I possibly trust them?

The renewal of trust

So we come to the present – a world in crisis: highly polarised, profoundly divided and deeply distrusting. It is not the world most of us would have hoped to live in, and certainly not the world we want for our children.

How can we reverse these trends? How can we contribute to a renewal of trust – in the workplace, in business and in society as a whole?

Our earlier discussions of the ethical colleague, the ethical manager and the ethical business suggest a way: we can renew the trust others have in us by asserting our morality; by including the needs of others in our ambitions and our aspirations; by caring not just for those close to us but for our entire community, for neighbouring communities, for communities all across the world; and by showing that we care about the biological world on which we all depend.

Our moral values must outflank selfishness. They must be given precedence over our interests in productivity, profit and self-advancement. And, if these moral values shine through, the trust others have in us as individuals, as businesses, as professions and as communities will be renewed.

It is an outcome our society desperately needs.

Dedication

This series of articles is dedicated to the memory of Kate Wadia, former Managing Director of Phase 3 Consulting. Kate’s morality, intelligence, dynamism and kindness remain ever-present in the hearts and minds of all who knew her.

Luke Andreski

Luke Andreski
About the Author:

Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in People Technology implementation projects and change management. More recently he has focused on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.

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