On excellence: Business needs trust in its future

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BEFORE the vote in the House of Representatives on the North American Free Trade Agreement, I must have seen a dozen interviews with workers. Not one supported the treaty, and most were worried because business was so strongly in favour of it.

For 15 years we have preached employee involvement, empowerment and liberation, while profit-sharing and employee share ownership have also taken off. Yet there is a bushel of evidence that the average American still doesn't trust 'business'.

What is business, anyway? It's an army of small firms, run by the man or the woman next door - an army that employs tens of millions. Business is also you and me: clerks, diesel mechanics, gardeners and neurosurgeons. We perform useful services and our customers compensate us accordingly.

I recall a poll that claimed two out of three Americans thought the average business person was dishonest. Yet the typical respondent is an 'average business person' - a receptionist, sales manager, and so on. Surely those questioned didn't mean to say that they were dishonest?

I suspect they were referring to the much-caricatured senior executive, dressed in black, conversing in hushed tones with co-conspirators.

Most readers of this column are business people. Do you and I and we deserve our wretched image? Could be.

The day I wrote this column, I came across an article about Ted Koppel, the dollars 2m-a-year television news show host, claiming that he was fed up with being treated like chattel. One gripe: his bosses at the ABC network classify the financial numbers of his Nightline programme as 'confidential' - not to be shared with the likes of Mr Koppel.

The same day's news also included a howler about the short but nasty strike at American Airlines. The company so badly misled customers about cancelled flights that Federico Pena, the Secretary of Transportation, felt compelled to write to Robert Crandall, the airline's chief executive, imploring him to tell the truth.

Sure, for every pair of stories like these, there are literally millions of daily commercial transactions that come off without a hitch. Still, the fact that we don't assume the butcher puts his thumb on the scales 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 the fat of less-competitive days, have excised millions of talented people 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. A multitude 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). Another multitude will launch worker empowerment programmes that are hollow beneath the banners and the slogans.

But if we can't fix the world, we should 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.

If I were you, I'd assume they don't trust me - and get to work. You might start with a confidential survey, asking employees point-blank whether the bosses at your place live up to the espoused principles of empowerment, total quality management, or whatever.

Also ask workers to reveal (again, confidentially) when and how the company has misled them. Then repeat this exercise with customers, distributors, vendors, community groups, regulators.

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

But mostly the answer is introspection - at home, at night and with small groups of peers: Are we trustworthy? If not, why not? The discussion should go on the rest of your life.

All this had a practical angle. Obviously, we can no longer succeed with a steep hierarchy in place.

The flat-organisation alternative demands much more delegation of authority to the front line. That is, 'we' must learn to trust 'them'.

And we, in turn, will 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.

Copyright TPG Communications