Rebuilding trust in business part 1
A group of us gathered at the Greenhouse Hotel in Bournemouth on Tuesday evening to explore the question “How to rebuild trust in business”. This was highly topical, given the recent corporate scandals (the banks, the pharmaceutical companies, the media hacking saga among others) and that the Chief Executive Officer of security firm G4S had appeared earlier in the day before a Parliamentary committee to explain why his firm has failed so badly to meet its obligations regarding the Olympics.
This event was the second in a series of events that we are running at Working in Trust, aimed at stimulating conversations around the place of trust in business. Our ultimate goal is to establish healthy relationships between individuals, organisations, society and the planet and we see trust as an essential element in such relationships, as well as a key tool for helping us understand the issues.
Business has become synonymous with an overriding focus on efficiency and growth, while human values such as love, peace, truth and compassion are forced to take a back seat. We need to put them back in the driving seat, in our organisations and in our lives.
Perhaps a different approach to organising could help us adjust our focus. At Working in Trust we aim to encourage the development of trust-based organisation models, such as those used by Robert Bosch, John Lewis, NHS Foundation Trusts, the Guardian and the BBC, which have been shown to foster a spirit of service to the community and not just “consumers”, shareholders and the executive team. In these events we aim to inspire conversations that explore trust and business from many angles.
We have found experiential learning, engaging the whole person, to be far more powerful than simply talking and presenting, so we have designed the sessions to be interactive and engaging. We also like to use silence to access the intuitive parts of the mind.
This event was sponsored by the Cooperative Group. We heard from Fay Bowden of Cooperative membership services who told us that there are 1 billion people on the planet who are members of cooperatives, including over 9 million in the UK. The first co-operative was founded in 1840 in Rochdale by 28 individuals who wanted to ensure a supply of cheap and good quality food, something that was hard to guarantee in those days. They didn’t have an easy time at the start – existing traders were very unhappy about the new competition and bribed the power company not to supply gas to the new store. They had to work by candlelight at the beginning.
The Co-op has 6 million members nationally and is run by elected members. Fay was very enthusiastic and passionate about the benefits of a cooperative. At the same time she pointed out that it is not a perfect system. For example, most customers are too busy to engage in the elections, whether by voting or by running as candidates, and so it is mainly retired men who get elected.
Ethics are important to the coop. They are heavily involved in fair trade for example. The group also includes the Co-op bank, which is well-known for its ethical policy, turning down deposits from organisations involved with arms and other practices considered unethical by the bank and its customers.
After a short group discussion, we played a game, creating a mock shareolder-owned supermarket in the room, with each person playing a different role. There was a CEO, managers, shop floor staff, customers, shareholders and so on. Three people sat as observers. After taking up positions in the room, people were asked to stand or sit in silence for a couple of minutes and then move within the room to where they felt they should be standing. They then explained why they had moved. One of the most notable movements was by the CEO, who moved from behind her managers to sit closer to the shop floor staff. A large supplier also moved close to shop floor staff. By contrast the person representing an environmental NGO moved away from the CEO and staff and placed himself between a supplier (a dairy farmer) and a small shareholder, looking to form alliances. It became apparent that this person had assumed that the CEO would not want to engage in fruitful dialogue, so he moved away. It seemed to the group that assumptions like these can easily get in the way of open communication.
We then gathered into small groups to share learnings and to address the question “What could I do to rebuild trust in business?”. When it came time to share, almost everyone talked about the need to communicate better, whether with managers, customers or staff. They also spoke of the need to “listen better”, to be “more curious” and to “allow others to be more honest with me”. It is clear that there is a really strong link between trust and communication.
For the last 20 minutes we conducted a dialogue (see here for more on what dialogue is), using the power of silence to access our intuitive mind. This is something that is unfamiliar to most organisations, caught up in busy-ness and the need for efficiency. Yet dialogue is a practice as old as the hills and though apparently slow at times, can be very powerful when used as a decision-making process (many successful Quaker businesses use or have used a similar process). In the dialogue, we shared insights and had a good chance to listen to others.
Looking back on the event, a couple of things have come up for me. Firstly, the powerful connection between trust and communication was new to me, although I suppose it ought to be obvious. We are far more likely to trust others when we have open communication with them. There is another aspect to this – we need to be conscious about who we communicate with too. The CEO who changed position to be closer to the shop floor staff made a powerful difference to the dynamic in the room. She was able to open channels of communication at a different level whilst maintaining contact with her managers. Who should I be communicating with, I wonder?
Secondly, one participant said she intended to work on keeping open communication between her “rational mind” and her “intuitive mind”. This was a very well-timed observation since we were just moving from conversational mode (rational mind) to dialogue (intuitive mind). This got me thinking. There are strong parallels, it seems to me, between the way Western thinking is dominated by the left brain (rational, mechanistic) and the way we have structured our society and our organizations. If we want to re-balance society, we need to call on the intuitive, holistic right brain and adopt more fluid structures.
It occurs to me that I have been making a fundamental error. Many of us are working to bring systems thinking and more holistic approaches into organizations, looking at structures and processes, while others focus on inner work (leadership, values), seeking to develop the intuitive, holistic side of individuals. Yet this is a unhelpful division. Since the inner world is a reflection of the outer, we need to work on both inner and outer at the same time. We are so used to separating things – now is the time to bring them together.
Thanks to all those who took part. I am looking forward to feedback and to future events after the summer.