Do you trust business?

Movie villains are often business people. The remake of the Magnificent Seven (understandably keen to change the villain from the, lets just say dated, villain portrayal in the original) went for a business man. Audiences seemed fine with it; they find it plausible that business people are simply evil. Of course it could be just that 19th century business people were evil but it probably says something about how the public views modern business people too. This isn’t great. I certainly hope, and would even go as far as to say I’m confident, that (most of) my students wouldn’t massacre a town to make a bit more money. That said all of us can get caught up in greed, stupidity, and general lack of attention to others. None of us make the morally right decision all the time. When a business manager fails this can often have extremely negative consequences so it wouldn’t be a good idea to trust all managers all the time.

What is Trust Though?

What do we mean by trust? Trust involves “…expectations of future behavior. For example, A trusts B to do C.. ” but environment matters so we might say that “A trusts B to do C in context D” (Wicks, Moriarty and Harris 2014, page 4). This definition is relatively clear — it is essentially “is person A predictable” but it doesn’t capture all that the public thinks trust is. When you survey the public and ask “do you trust X?, they surely don’t just seek predictability. They also expect some form of care for others. One could “trust” that a business person would always steal from you but it seems unlikely you would answer a survey question along the lines that that you trusted them. Most people would only say they trusted someone if they trusted them to do an action that was in the person doing the trusting’s interest.

Who Do You Trust? To Do What?

A fascinating thing about trust is that it can be decomposed into different type of trust; trust in people you know, trust in generalized groups, trust in institutions etc… These all have different starting points and can diverge. It is quite possible to trust your bank manager but think banks are out to get you. Take Pixar, which is given as an exemplar of a firm with a good reputation that is trustworthy. I certainly trust Pixar to make great films and those looking for a way into animation would surely trust Pixar to help them learn skills. That said John Lasseter, a creative force behind the company, has admitted to “missteps” in his behavior towards employees. I don’t specifically know what those missteps were but clearly trust in Lasseter to behave appropriately should be considerably reduced. This also reduces my trust in Pixar as a good place to work.

What can we do to better understand who we should trust to do what?

More Information

I’m a big fan of more information. I don’t see how behaviour is improved if we don’t share information about bad behaviour. I think those working at organizations have a reasonable expectation to be informed about what is going on. The idea of open books resonates with me. With more information we can hold people who deserve it accountable (and better reward those who deserve praise).  I also hope that we can better appreciate the challenges of business; e.g., difficult tradeoffs made by fallible people. Hopefully managers who are doing their best to make reasonable decisions can convince those influenced by their decisions that the decision is, at a minimum, a fair one if they share more information.

Read: Jared Harris, Brian Moriarty, and Andrew Wicks, (2014) Public Trust in Business, Cambridge University Press