There’s no doubt trust is an increasingly rare commodity these days: new data shows global trust in the United States has fallen below 50 percent and consumers’ trust in brands is falling away, too, with less than 35 percent saying they have confidence in most of the brands they buy and use.
Company executives and world leaders are always looking for quick fixes and easy solutions to restore trust with customers and consumers. One need look no further than Hollywood, where entertainment moguls like Harvey Weinstein — now on trial for his years of alleged sexual abuses — have led to the complete collapse of any trust that may have once existed.
But the world keeps turning and money has to be made — they are businesses, after all. So what’s the way forward? How can trust be restored, particularly in an era in which younger Americans don’t really trust anyone?
The old solutions, like legal recourse and simple apologies before returning to business as usual, apparently haven’t worked. So Dr. David W. Miller, director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, is making the case in a new study, which he will be presenting at the Davos Economic Forum next week, that there’s much to be learned from the practices found in religious traditions, in particular, the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Miller argued in the paper — “The Restoration of Trust? Insights and Lessons from Wisdom Traditions” — that perhaps litigious solutions aren’t, in fact, the best solutions when it comes to restoring trust between companies and consumers. When trust is present, “it is taken for granted,” he explained. In other words, it’s accepted until it’s broken.
“[T]rust, when intact, remains invisible,” wrote Miller. “It is made visible when one or more players in that field breach that trust, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Based on the severity and repetition of that breach, a crisis eventually occurs, resulting in a trust deficit that may not be reparable.”
The simple reality is, as Miller put it, “time must pass” in order for trust to be restored. The Princeton professor, who coauthored the study with Dr. Michael J. Thate, compared the work of reestablishing trust to the healing of a wound.
“Time doesn’t heal all wounds,” Miller wrote. “It does, however, allow them gradually to scar over if the offender and the offended enter into a mutual relationship committed to repair.”
“The offended party, in turn, must let the wound scar — they must cease picking at it — and arrive at a choice whether or not to walk anew with the offending party or remove themselves from the relationship,” he continued. “Lost trust cannot be recovered. It must be built anew.”
During an interview with Faithwire, Miller said it’s critical for company and world leaders suffering a trust deficit to “steward the passage of time well” by choosing, among other things, to be introspective — a principle he found in Scripture.
None of these changes can take place overnight, but constitute a serious lifestyle change, he explained. The first step of that process is conversation, which Miller is hoping to spark during his presentation at Davos on Monday.
“These are suggestions; it’s not a formula,” Miller said. “My hope at Davos is we can start a discussion and bring in resources that most people had never thought to look at.”
On a practical level, many people — Christians, in particular — generally understand the principles of Scripture applied in one-on-one settings. But finding the application of those same moral concepts when it comes to the diplomatic dealings of national leaders or the market decisions of corporate executives has proven to be a bit more challenging.
One obvious way in which trust has been eroded and found to be difficult to repair, Miller argued, is through the replacing of relationships with contractual agreements. In making his case for why the former is ultimately better than the latter, Miller referenced the Psalms.
“[T]he Divine does not desire sacrifices — a legalist and often ceremonial response to transgressions,” wrote Miller. “Rather, the Divine wishes an elevated relationship, a covenantal one that is based on mutual trust and care.”
“[T]he Divine desire is for the Divine will to be done and for the law to be written on one’s heart — for the law to be internalized,” he continued. “The radical irony is that one who is truly obedient to the laws of the Divine will offer appropriate sacrifices to the Divine. The one who refuses appropriate sacrifices demonstrates they do not have the Divine law written on their heart. Sacrifice, however, is not the desire. An internalizing of the Divine will and law upon one’s heart is.”
Miller’s point is legal obligation alone is “not sufficient for sustaining trust.” Instead, leaders need to “enact the language, culture, and practices of trust so as to demonstrate their trustworthiness beyond mere obligation and contract.”
Miller’s work was partially inspired by what he has called the “Five Rs”: remorse, repentance, responsibility, repair, and restoration.
According to the professor, from a corporate perspective, remorse is “feeling the wrong as if it had been done to itself, the institution,” and requires processing it as such; repentance consists of not only stopping the wrongdoing, but also “evaluating and changing the entire metric that made the misdeed possible”; responsibility requires “a mutual, collaborative exchange with the offended parties on what remedy and recompense might look like” and shouldn’t always include “forced restitutions or penalties” but should instead inspire an effort to “create the grounds for a new, sustainable relationship”; repair calls for “transforming and altering the institutional practices and processes that caused the offending acts and behaviors” in the first place, which is a worthwhile way “to steward the passage of time so as to demonstrate trustworthiness”; and restoration, which shouldn’t be confused with returning to the previous relationshi, but instead marks “the formation of a jointly articulated new relationship” and “the emergence of a new trust through the building of a new relationship over time.”
If those steps, which are practices pulled directly from religious traditions, are followed, trust can be reestablished over time.
“Through the wise stewardship of the passage of time,” Miller wrote, “trust can then return to its embeddedness and invisibility.”