The Ethics of Trust
Trust and ethical decision-making are intertwined. Ethical behavior usually enhances trust. Unethical behavior usually erodes trust. The former does not require perfection. Rather, best efforts to prioritize ethics in all decision-making and swiftly taking responsibility for and remedying, ethical failings, builds trust. The latter does not require perfection either. Even partially or potentially unethical behavior or a hint of impropriety generates the doubt that becomes a slippery slope to mistrust. Mistrust can lead to fear (such as the National Security Agency accessing personal data) or unhelpful self-protective measures (like home-made Ebola protection suits). Worse, mistrust often leads to further unethical behavior. Think of all of the athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs because they believe everyone does.
This month’s Top 5 collects some of the most insightful commentary and pertinent examples I have seen on the topic during the past month.
- Distrust and Ebola. Amidst headlines and tragic photos of Ebola raging through West Africa and landing in Dallas, The New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that distrust is one of the most distancing and contagious triggers of fear and panic. Mr. Brook’s insightful commentary sets the societal stage for distrust: our current society increases distance, in turn decreasing trust. A “segmented society” with a widening gap between leaders and ordinary citizens, the “instant news” that may scare viewers more than reality scares those on the ground, and “our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death” all exacerbate mistrust. Put simply, we trust less what we don’t know. Mistrust in turn triggers a vicious cycle increasing distance. He quotes George Eliot’s Middle March, “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust.” I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Brooks on all counts. Unethical behavior lurks within these distance-increasing and trust-decreasing examples, from income disparity to Ebola. See The New York Times Op-Ed
- Charitably untrustworthy. Somaly Mam, the Cambodian anti-trafficking campaigner and co-founder of the Somaly Mam foundation, lost all credibility when Newsweek revealed that she had fabricated her personal story as a trafficking victim and brothel slave. Mistrust slipped to utter disbelief and then outrage when we learned that her unethical behavior included coaching other girls to lie about their stories. Ms. Mam denies the accusations and justifies her behavior by pointing to the importance of the cause and even the young women who continue to revere her. Trafficking is irrefutably abhorrent and an urgent international priority. But lying is not a means to end this horror. Unethical behavior undercuts trust in legitimate efforts to end this nightmare from human rights campaigners and non-profit organizations to donors and concerned citizens taking the time to read up. Most importantly, Somaly Mam disrespected the victims and sent the message that their genuine suffering is not sufficient to warrant political, financial, and legal engagement from the global community. She positioned herself as the unethical and untrustworthy designer-clad center of attention, watching as her fabricated trust contagiously engaged celebrities and highly respected journalists from Sheryl Sandberg to Nicholas Kristoff. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly, let’s trust those who fight trafficking ethically and join the war against this terror. See my blog post “The Wrong Story”, Newsweek Coverage, Somaly Mam’s Book and the recent Marie Claire’s Article.
- Trust A recommendation; Geoffrey Hosking’s book Trust just recently reviewed by the Financial Times interestingly links trust to everything from symbolic systems in our society (e.g. religious institutions) to the importance today of historical perceptions of trust. FT Review
- Branding trust. This week, like every other in the past six months, brought an update of the General Motors ignitions case. We expect widely available brands such as General Motors to integrate the importance of the public trust, and in particular their customers’ trust, in every decision they make. Put bluntly, we expect them not to leave cars on the road knowing that ignition problems had already killed or to settle legal claims involving the loss of human life in secret. We expect the same of the regulators that oversee these brands (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the case of GM). General Motors is not alone. We also expect fast food chains, retailers, and tech companies to treat their workers fairly so that we are not purchasing child labor when we buy a burger, a t-shirt, or a smart phone. Cases like GM that knowingly jeopardize human life flip the positive societal position of trusting until a person or organization is proven untrustworthy. Unethical behavior shifts the default position of society from trusting brands that thrive through the support of ordinary consumers to mistrusting them. Everyone loses, but the companies lose most. We collectively brand companies as untrustworthy. Corporate names become short-hand for disaster (think the retailers linked to the collapsing Bangladesh garment factories). See e.g. The New York Times’ articles: “Death Toll Rises to 29 in G.M. Switch Defect” or “In Surprise, Top Lawyer at G.M. Sets Retirement”
- Trust Wildcard. This last one is for every decision that fails to integrate ethics in real time…thereby eroding trust. I challenge you to find an exception.
© Copyright 2014 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.