Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rebuilding Trust

Using the high level of trust in business and employee trust in companies.

If a couple is having a heated argument at home, what would they do if a robber broke in? It is an analogy I used in response to a detraction from my recent article on “Seizing the moment”, with the couple meaning South Africans and the robber a metaphor for the global economy.

Sadly, it seems that no degree of immediate external threat will distract us from throwing pots and pans at each other. It is a matter of trust and it appears that the level of distrust is so alienating that nothing will drive us into each other’s arms. Frankly, I don’t buy it! I am simply not swayed by the toxic garbage polluting social media, and the highbrow hype in comment sections on websites. I rely rather on those expressions of goodwill that I experience daily. And now we have figures to support it.

But distrust of government is a real problem. Perhaps Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan can go some way in this month’s budget in settling the financial markets and lifting investor sentiment while still appeasing the many open hands that are regularly outstretched at this time, now multiplied by the drought. It is a huge task. Unless he does the outrageous and politically impossible, it is doubtful whether he could even remotely make a difference to trust in government.

Government in South Africa has by far the lowest level of trust among the general population (16%) in the 28 countries and 33 000 respondents surveyed in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer. It is even lower (15%) among the informed respondents.

More significantly is the much higher level of trust in business (60%), which has shown a 4% gain over the previous year. It also reflects the second biggest difference (44%) between trust in business and trust in government. This difference is much bigger for the informed South African public (75% in business and 15% in government.) Informed trust in business has jumped 11%. Trust in South African NGO’s (58%) is nearly 4 times higher than trust in Government.  Even the favourite whipping boy, the media, enjoy a level of trust nearly 3 times more than that of government.

These are remarkable findings that no doubt will be scoffed at by government who, with some justification, can point to paradoxes and the inherent shortcomings of opinion surveys. One inconsistency is the ruling party’s success at the polls and its failure to impress in government. Many explanations have been given: unattractive opposition alternatives, struggle nostalgia, and democratic (albeit weakening) branch structures of the ANC. By their very nature, paradoxes become intolerable, and the gap between promises, expectations, and delivery has its own day of reckoning.

Unlike snap opinion polls, repetitive opinion surveys tend to become more reliable in time. Even without using the percentages as absolutes, the huge gap between trust in government and other institutions cannot simply be disregarded.

It will be a fundamental mistake to do so. The incessant ideological and populist bashing of business in South Africa is highly counter-productive. Erosion of trust in business and other institutions will not lead to enhanced trust in government. Gossipers may tarnish the reputation of others, but they seldom improve trust in themselves. All it will do is further erode public trust as a whole, causing more uncertainty and discontent. The converse is true: displaying more trust in South African business, ending the ideological belligerence and indeed publicly embracing business more in seeking solutions, will have substantial mutual benefits. Of course, business itself has to be more actively involved: especially when it comes to ethics, social conscience and employee involvement.

The same goes for organised labour. Its current stance is suicidal and simply a road to hell. Despite all the boss-bashing that organised labour thrives on, it has been a poison that it is now having to swallow itself. And all to little avail. For me, the most significant finding of the Edelman report (see this graphic) is the relatively high level of trust South African employees (70%) have in the companies they work for. This is one of the highest in the world, and only slightly lower than Singapore; outperforming countries like the U.S., Canada, Germany and even Japan (which now has only a 40% level of employee trust!)

This finding is so at odds with popular perceptions (including my own) about seething employee discontent, that one is tempted to assume that the survey is severely flawed. But it could also mean that the perceptions themselves are false.
·       Labour unrest creates media hype, warping perceptions about general employee satisfaction.
·       Ongoing labour leader hostility, histrionics and spin, exacerbated by competition for members and amplified during negotiations.
·       Peer pressure and collective coercion which overrides individual employee loyalty.
·       Protective labour laws and procedures causing employees to feel more secure than in many other countries.
·       The shift in human resource styles from autocratic to being more consultative.
·       Company brand loyalty as opposed to trust in company leadership. (Indeed this is borne out by the research which shows that CEO’s globally still do not enjoy a high level of trust.)

Even if the research is only partly true, it represents the most unrecognised and exciting opportunity for even greater engagement with and involvement of employees in enhancing the general level of trust in South Africa. The workplace is a highly significant arena for social interaction and cohesion.

While I have clearly underestimated the degree of labour involvement that has already taken place, I would argue that much more can still be done and I have covered this in much of my writing. It can be taken a giant leap forward by adopting principles of common purpose and common fate in the workplace and changing the entire South African economic landscape.

What else do we have? 

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