Trust in Nebraska

Trust in NebraskaI’m back from a four-day Conference on Institutional Trust at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was one of only two non-academics (the other a most talented Federal judge from Maryland). A few headlines.

First, our hosts – the University of Nebraska’s Psychology Department and its Center for Public Policy – could not possibly have been more gracious and hospitable. Since my parents and grandparents all hail from Nebraska, this was no surprise to me, but still gratifying.

Second, the four days were very enlightening – though not quite in the ways I had expected. This is the first of a two-part series (second part here) where I try to explain what I learned by playing missionary from the Land of Business to the Land of Academia.

Silo City

It was no surprise to me that there’s a huge gap between the business world and academia when it comes to trust. What I didn’t expect was to find silos even within academia. Allow me to explain.

The conference was hosted mainly by the psychology profession, though there were a few business school academics and even a few political scientists in attendance.

The leading model in the psychologists’ view of the world is one produced by David Schoorman of Purdue’s Krannert School, in 1995. I have to confess I had not heard of it, or of him, though the model feels very familiar (competence, integrity, benevolence). Schoorman was in attendance.

Also present was an academic much better known to me, political scientist Eric Uslaner. Uslaner wrote The Moral Foundations of Trust – a masterful and powerful book. It was a delight to finally meet him in person.

One academic not in attendance but whom I’d have loved to meet was Francis Fukuyama, also a political scientist, from Stanford. While better known for his book The End of History, he also wrote a powerful volume called Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Not only is it a brilliant book, but as of today, it still ranks number 216,239 on Amazon.

Let me put that in context: that book was by an academic, written in 1996, and that current sales ranking is competing with Harry Potter, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Game of Thrones. Not bad. (By comparison, 2006’s Freakonomics currently clocks in at #143,189).

So, about those silos. I’ve already admitted I had not heard of Schoorman. To my shock, neither had Uslaner. In fact, Uslaner suggested he knew only about 5% of the 100 or so people in attendance. As nearly as I can tell, they returned the favor. All this despite all of them toiling in the nominally same trust vineyard.

It gets better. I asked a panel of 8 for their views on Fukuyama, and it seemed that only 1 person was willing to comment (I’m guessing, though can’t prove it, they were not aware of his work). And yet they are all academics.

It goes without saying they hadn’t heard of me before (though I will say for the record: as of 9:59PM on 12 May, 2013, The Trusted Advisor ranks number 8,286 on Amazon – despite being published back in 2001.)

OK, so that’s not so surprising. But I also got blank stares whenever I mentioned Steven M.R. Covey’s Speed of Trust – #1,306 on Amazon, outranking all the rest of us. Ditto the Edelman Trust Barometer survey, which gets presented each year at Davos.

Now, the point is not to dump on academics – after all, I’m sure that in any room of 100 businesspeople you’d probably not even find one person who was aware of any of the above-mentioned academics, whereas there were two or three in Lincoln who were aware of some of the business literature. (By the way, props to the academics for being  more rigorous in their discussion of trust than business people, albeit narrower in focus).

The point is, whether you’re talking within business, within academia, or across the chasm dividing the two, you find a general lack of awareness about what else is being done in the field. Add this to the definitional issues surrounding trust, and you get a pretty disconnected approach to trust in the world.

Six Blind Men and the Elephant

But what’s really interesting  is not that the silos exist – it’s the differences between the silos that are fascinating. It turns out that the way the psychologists think about trust is skewed differently from the way Edelman PR thinks about trust. And that in turn is different from the political scientists, who in turn see things differently from groups like Trust Across America.

And that’ll be the subject of my next post, The Blind Men and the Elephant of Trust, an attempt to very broadly scope out the differing perspectives on trust.