Trust: Necessary in business and in life

July 18, 2012

As a longtime student of business ethics, I’m regularly asked what I consider to be the key ingredient, element or virtue necessary to produce and sustain ethics in business. The answer is easy to state, but difficult to do — trust.

Trust, quite simply, is confidence in the character of another in regard to predictability, reliability, dependability, integrity and regularity. Trust is the basis of all human intimacy and relationships. Trust is also the key ingredient for political and social community. As Aristotle suggested, people must be able to trust one another in politics, commerce, love, friendship and battle.

In his now-classic text Trust: The Social Virtues and the Evolution of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argues that without trust we lose the social capital, the social glue, the social commitment necessary for relationships and interaction at every level.

What is critical to recognize in business and in life is that trust is not a single moment in time — it is an ongoing choice and commitment. Trust is something that we do, create, build, maintain and sustain with our words, actions, promises, emotions and general demeanor in regard to others. Trust is an action word, a verb, not just a naming noun.

Trust is the basis of order in our moral, social and commercial lives. As the philosopher Robert Solomon so eloquently and whimsically phrased it:

"We generally trust the products we buy; we thoughtlessly stake our lives on them (cars, pharmaceuticals, packaged foods, airplanes, parachutes, bungee cords). We trust the people who serve us, often without checking their credentials. (Do most of us ever look at our doctors’ or dentists’ professional degrees? How do you know that the waitress did not spit in your soup or drop your sandwich on the way from the kitchen? How many people double-check the pills dispensed by their pharmacists? How do we know in an emergency that we haven’t hired the Three Stooges as our electricians and plumbers – that is, unless the calamitous results are obvious?) Despite the notorious scams and phonies, our attitude toward most of our business transactions is one of trust, mixed with a certain amount of prudence. If one really accepted the warning “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), it would be difficult to be a consumer at all."

I am convinced that when we fail to make and honor our commitments to each other — when trust dies — we render our lives and our relationships unstable and perhaps unlivable. In the words of Sissela Bok, "when trust is destroyed, societies falter and collapse."

Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and chair of the department of management at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-founder and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, and the author of several books, including My Job, My Self and Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) Philosopher.