Is “Business” Trustworthy?

Tom Peters

Before the NAFTA vote in the House of Representatives, I must have watched a dozen interviews with workers. Not one supported the pact; most worried that business so strongly favored the treaty.

For 15 years we’ve preached employee involvement, empowerment, liberation. Profit sharing and employee-share ownership have also taken off. Yet there’s a bushel of evidence that the average person doesn’t trust “business.”

What is business, anyway? It’s an army of small firms, run by the gal and guy next door, that employs tens of millions. Business is also you and me—clerks and diesel mechanics, gardeners and neurosurgeons. We perform useful services, and customers compensate us accordingly.

I recall a poll claiming two-thirds of us thought the average businessperson was dishonest. Yet, the typical respondent is an “average businessperson”—receptionist, sales manager, etc. Surely those questioned didn’t mean they were dishonest?

I suspect they were referring to the much-caricatured senior exec: dressed in black, conversing in hushed tones with co-conspirators in the men’s room (à la the TV version of Barbarians at the Gate).

Most readers of this column are businesspeople. Do you/me/we deserve our wretched image? Could be. The day I penned this column, I came across an article about Ted Koppel claiming the $2 million-a-year star was fed up with being treated like chattel. One gripe: ABC classifies Nightline‘s financial numbers “confidential”—not to be shared with the likes of Koppel!

The same day’s news also included a howler about the short but nasty American Airlines strike. The company so badly misled customers about cancelled flights that Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena felt compelled to send CEO Robert Crandall a letter imploring him to tell the truth.

Sure, for every pair of stories like these, literally millions of daily commercial transactions come off without a hitch. Still, the fact that we don’t assume the butcher puts his thumb on the scale doesn’t negate the sense of foreboding the average person has about “business.” Moreover, those suspicions have increased in recent years, as big corporations, saddled with bloat from less competitive days, have excised millions of talented folks from their payrolls.

So what do we do? Perhaps nothing. There are so many businesses, and the times are so turbulent, that the odds of eliminating all genuine miscreants are zilch. Besides, airlines will keep lying to customers (all do, routinely, in my experience). Jillions will continue to follow a “need to know only” policy and senselessly withhold data from employees all employees need to know, as I see it). Jillions more will launch TQM and empowerment programs that are hollow beneath the shimmering banners and faddish slogans.

But if we can’t fix the world, we should nevertheless take very seriously the low regard in which you and I are held by our fellow citizens, whose eyes briefly meet ours as we walk down the street this noon.

If I were you, I’d assume “they” don’t trust me, and get to work. You might start with a confidential survey, asking “them” point blank whether the bosses at your place live up to the espoused principles of empowerment, TQM or whatever. Also ask workers to reveal (again, confidentially) when and how the company has misled them. Then repeat the exam with customers, distributors, vendors, community groups, regulators, etc.

Address the results head on. Remedies might include sharing more information or appointing powerful ombudspersons; or, as Levi Strauss does, having subordinates evaluate how well their bosses walk the talk and live the corporate values.

But these are programmatic actions. Mostly, the answer is introspection, at home at night and with small groups of peers: Am I/are we trustworthy? If not, why not? The discussion should go on the rest of your life.

All this has a practical angle. obviously, we can no longer succeed with steep hierarchies in place. The flat-organization alternative demands much more delegation of authority to the front line. That is, “we” must learn to trust “them.” And we will, in turn, only trust them when they trust us. This reciprocal arrangement, the basis of all healthy relationships must become the cornerstone of tomorrow’s adaptive enterprise.

It’s a long way from information highways, digital compression and virtual reality. But all those exotic enablers of a revised commercial reality will fall far short of their enormous potential if we make a mess of the fundamental, underlying human equation.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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