Trust, Scale, and the Corporation

Erecting Trust in a BusinessI always have trouble answering a question I’m often asked: What company does a great job on trust?  Because the answer is some combination of, “it depends on the definition of trust,” and “hardly any.” Let me unpack that.

Trustworthiness and the Corporation

Mitt Romney’s metaphysics notwithstanding, corporations are not people, apart from a few legal rights. Corporations don’t smile, feel guilty, bleed, or feel emotions. That means: it makes some sense to say “company X is trustworthy,” but it makes little sense to say “company X trusts.”

Trustworthiness attributes that a company can exhibit include reliability and transparency. But to say that a company trusts is simply to make statements about company policies put in place by people. So from one perspective, the connection between corporations and trust is largely a subset of trustworthiness.

Of course, from another perspective it’s meaningful nonetheless to talk about corporations in terms of trust.  That perspective is best articulated by Trust Across America, which uses the acronym FACTS to identify five metrics associated with trustworthiness. Those are: Financial stability and strength , Accounting conservatism, Corporate integrity, Transparency, and Sustainability. Most people would generally agree that those attributes are associated with what we call trust, and I think TAA have done a sensible job of defining and weighting those components.

And yet, that still leaves all that human-y stuff – the bleeding, feeling, risk-taking, emotional parts of trust. The parts that corporations can’t do.

Personal Trust in the Corporation

Corporations cannot trust, but they have enormous effects on whether or not its people trust, and are trustworthy. The biggest influence on trustworthiness and the propensity to trust is not metrics, or compensation systems, or even policies. It is values and culture.  Do the values and culture celebrate honesty, integrity, long-term perspectives, and other-orientation? Or do they stress short-term performance, micro-metrics, “being tough,” and meeting the numbers?

The question of values and culture brings me back to that opening question: What company does a great job on trust?

When I answer “hardly any,” what I’m saying is I don’t see any large corporations that are driven by trust-related values, or support trust-friendly cultures.  I have seen some good examples of smaller-scale organizations that are highly trust-based – a unit at MicrosoftBangor Savings Bank, and Pediatric Services of America, for example But these are relatively small organizations. Where are the Citibanks, General Motors and Oracles in the pantheon of trust-friendly organizations?  Is the problem that trust can’t scale?

Can Trust Scale?

Trust very much can scale. In fact, values-driven organizations scale very well, especially in fast-moving and complex industries, where standardized processes are too complex to keep up with reality.  The issue is not being values-driven – the issue is which values will drive. Goldman Sachs is a values-driven organization; so is Apple. It’s just that the values being valued don’t include trust in the top list.

Now here I’ll get speculative. I think this is because the dominant values in Western business in the last 50 years have been largely anti-trust. The values we have espoused have included competition, the Darwinian-revised version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, caveat emptor, management-by-metrics, management-by-process, and the reduction of all issues to an NPV calculation.

These are serious values, and they are all either anti-trust or trust-neutral (even though, as Trust Across America is demonstrating, trust is associated with higher profitability). And they are extremely dominant values. You don’t get to be a Big Corporation without drinking deeply of these belief systems, taught as they are in MBA programs and the popular business press.

A significant part of building trust in business is going to come not by revising policies and governance, and not by better regulation, but by re-orienting a corporation around core trust values. I see no reason to believe that trust values can’t scale as well as the other values; we’re just awaiting leaders with the vision and courage to lead the way.