A Matter of Trust

A Matter of Trust

It’s hard to gain, and even harder to regain.

Trust is a word that tends to elude a hard and fast definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” There’s a lot to that, most of which is just as elusive as the word itself.

Adam Waytz, Chair of Management & Organizations Department at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, writes, “The four key components of trust are benevolence, integrity, competence, and predictability…” According to Waytz, benevolence asks whether the person is kind; integrity speaks to the person’s ethics; competence relates to the person’s ability to act as expected and predictability deals with the consistency of the person’s behavior. Waytz’s operational definition of trust brings us quite a bit closer to giving the word tangible meaning.

Judging whether a person is benevolent, acts with integrity, is competent and predictable is relatively straightforward. Kindness, integrity, competence and predictability are characteristics that manifest themselves in concrete actions. For example, if I contract with a local business to do work on my home and the contractor shows up on time, is polite, doesn’t waste time, does impeccable work and finishes the job on time, I have reason to trust the contractor. I will likely recommend them to family and friends. I have no reason not to trust the contractor will behave the same way with my family or friends as they did with me.

The foregoing is an example of a small and human scale business transaction. There’s little complexity to it. The contractor could live down the street from me; the person could send their kids to the same school as mine. The contractor is a local business; they’re members of my community. On the other hand, relatively large business corporations will not retain the same characteristics. The difference is a matter of common sense: A small locally owned business is far more dependent on a geographically constrained community than a large, business corporation. If the contractor is to stay in business, they must be cognizant of the importance of relationships, those built around trust. Otherwise, over time, if the small contractor behaves in ways that do not merit trust (i.e., they’re not kind, lack integrity, are incompetent and unpredictable) there’s a good chance they’ll go out of business. A large, business corporation is simply not the same as a small, local contractor.

A corporation is defined by the Cornell Legal Information Institute as, “a legal entity created through the laws of its state of incorporation. Individual states have the power to promulgate laws relating to the creation, organization and dissolution of corporations.” A long-standing US legal tradition treats corporations (legal entities created and dissolved by the state, not biological creatures who are born, nurtured to adulthood and eventually die) as persons. Although, in the strictest sense, the law does not grant exactly the same rights to corporations as it does to persons, the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, brought the law much closer to doing so. The extent to which Citizens United undermines our democracy cannot be overstated.

Common sense tells us there’s a big difference between an individual person and a corporation, or group of people. In the case of the contrast between a local contractor and a large business corporation, we may be able to grasp this intellectually, but it’s difficult to live out. After all, an employee of a large corporation — a thinking, feeling human being – may be worthy of our trust, but their behavior does not necessarily represent the behavior of the corporation. The way in which a corporation behaves can, and in many cases will be, markedly different than the behavior of an individual employee. Yet, because we are relational creatures, and make decisions that are influenced by many factors, we tend to conflate the behavior of the individual employee with that of the corporation. The decision whether to trust a person is the one we make, because trusting a corporation is an abstract thing. What gets lost in all of this is another matter that does not require tomes of research to prove: large business corporations behave in ways that ensure their survival, and in this system, survival is grounded, not in trustworthiness, but profitability.

Why is this important?

At this moment, we confront the greatest existential crisis in all of Earth history. Our behavior – the way in which we treat each other and the whole of the biosphere – is threatening the existence of all life on the planet. We are at a precipice, one that demands radical changes in our behavior. And because we live in a highly complex world, one dominated by large, global business corporations, the decisions we make about who we trust are critical. A concrete example of this is going on in Lansing, and it’s one that begs the question, who do we trust?

According to an MLive article, “On Tuesday, April 12, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) urged state legislators during a two-hour hearing to redefine certain ‘advanced recycling’ techniques for plastic waste as ‘manufacturing’ processes outside of solid waste laws.” The hearing was held at the behest of State Senator Aric Nesbitt, who chairs the Senate Committee on Regulatory Reform.

Nesbitt is an interesting study in trust. He has refused to call a hearing on the changes to Michigan’s municipal solid waste policy, known as Part 115, because “there’s a lot of questions on these bills.” The changes, which are the result of more than six years of stakeholder engagement and received bipartisan support in the State House, are probably the most democratically vetted in our state’s history. Yet, one person, who also happens to have received campaign contributions from landfill owners, has managed to stall the process of passing these bills. They’ve been sitting on his desk for nearly one year. But this is just part of the story.

That Nesbitt invited the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to substantiate the need to redefine single use plastic as something other than municipal solid waste needs some examination, and in particular, within the context of trustworthiness.

The ACC is in part funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which is largely financed by the oil and gas industry. These points alone, however, do not necessarily mean we ought to distrust the ACC. After all, there’s really nothing wrong with an NGO, such as the ACC, speaking on behalf of its funders. But like any person, a corporation has a history of behavior, and its behavior that leads to trustworthiness.

Starting in the early 1980’s, what is now ExxonMobil had credible evidence, produced by its own scientists, that showed CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would lead to potentially catastrophic climate change. And yet, despite this reality, ExxonMobil mounted a campaign of disinformation. By funding NGOs, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the ACC, corporations whose purpose is to represent the interests of their funders, ExxonMobil financed the production of papers, op-eds and so forth that cast doubt on publicly available science that led to the same conclusions about CO2 emissions. This sort of behavior fails one of Waytz’s four criteria for trust: integrity.

Today, we’re being asked to trust large, multinational corporations, such as ExxonMobil, to make the changes we desperately need to survive. Should we trust them?

Here’s the thing about trust: It’s hard enough to gain, but even harder to regain once it’s lost. When trust is broken between individuals, regaining it starts with the one who broke it admitting the fault. Until large corporate entities, such as ExxonMobil and the ACC, admit to having failed trust, it’s not a good idea to simply start trusting them again.

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