Don't believe everything you think
Don't believe everything you think

Don't believe everything you think

How do we measure trustworthiness in business?

November 6 th 2009

We spotted a bumper sticker while on our campus recently that stated the obvious: "Don't believe everything you think." We tend to believe what we think, probably because we are the ones doing the thinking; however, we are simultaneously capable of infinite self-delusion and being sincerely wrong. Yet we are bombarded with catchy slogans, attracted with memory-recalling colors, and appealed to with scenes that flood parts of our brain with memories of pleasure and security—all thanks to neuroscience and industry. It can be a heady combination for an advertiser.

For example, we grew up with Bayer—a company synonymous with a little pink box and relief from pain as children. We trusted Bayer because when we were little our parents gave us their aspirin to fix our headaches. But when might we need to think more carefully—even mindfully—about a company we trust, whose products we consume (or whose shares we purchase)? We cannot always have the medical and scientific knowledge to make independent judgments about a company's trustworthiness, so we often (explicitly or tacitly) grant trust to companies in situations beyond our knowledge.

According to Max De Pree, "The quality of our work as leaders and the quality of our lives depends significantly on the questions we ask and the people about whom we ask the questions." When evaluating a business and our engagement with it, what do we need to believe about that business? Upon what measurement do we base our trust? As a "customer"—a consumer of the goods and services or a shareholder seeking wealth—what is it that we need to be asking?

Despite some recent concerns with Bayer's products, we felt confident that this was a business that intended the best for people—a company that wanted to do good in the world. We trusted Bayer. But Bayer's visibility in the news recently led us to some research. What did we learn?

2001—Bayer paid $14 million to U.S. and state governments to settle allegations that the company's actions helped health care providers submit inflated Medicaid claims for drugs.

2003—Bayer pleaded guilty to a criminal charge and paid $257 million in fines and penalties after a whistleblower exposed a scheme by the company to overcharge for the antibiotic Cipro.

2004—Bayer pleaded guilty to a criminal charge and paid a $66 million fine for its role in a price-fixing conspiracy involving a chemical used to make rubber products.

2004—Bayer was fined for fixing the price of aspirin and other over-the-counter medications in Germany.

2005—The German group was found guilty by Portuguese authorities of fixing prices on medication supplied to 22 hospitals.

2007—Bayer paid $8 million to resolve allegations by state attorneys general for failing to warn physicians and consumers about safety issues surrounding its cholesterol-lowering drug Baycol.

2007—Bayer paid a $3.2 million civil fine as part of a consent decree reached with the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice regarding weight-loss claims for One A Day vitamins.

2009—Bayer was required to run a $20-million corrective advertising campaign about its birth control pill Yaz as part of a legal settlement secured by a number of state attorneys general and the FDA.

Yet we also learned that in October 2008, Bayer's Canadian division was named one of "Canada's Top 100 Employers"—an annual competition that recognizes the employers that lead their industries in offering exceptional working conditions and progressive human resources policies. Later that same month, Bayer was also named one of Greater Toronto's Top Employers.

Some of the most trusted names we know have been involved in crisis or scandals over the past few years—and not only Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers or AIG. They are companies that trade in the physical and mental health of people across the face of the planet. Clearly, the standards we choose for measuring trustworthiness matter. So what standards do we choose? How do we approach such complex issues?

We might consider whether the result of the business is good work.Is it sufficient for a business to make money without any other redeeming goal? Or is there some other regimen that must be satisfied? Might good work be more important than relative levels of profitability?

Psychologists Csikszentmihalyi, Damon and Gardner define "good work" as being simultaneously excellent in quality, responsive to the needs of the broader community, and personally meaningful. E. F. Schumacher said human work should "provide necessary and useful goods and services ... enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards ... [and] do so in service to, and cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity."

This year, Janis listened to some older thought leaders probe their own thinking about the contribution of their work. They clearly asserted that there needed to be something more. Just as products alone were not enough, ideas or theories were not enough. These thinkers emerged from the Second World War aware of a deeper need for fulfillment—a need to "fix" what went wrong. They felt the generation in power had made a mess of things and people's trust had been misplaced; now they were out to make the world better.

Do we feel the same personal responsibility? Or, do we rely on corporate social responsibility as the banner under which these issues will be solved?

Do we ask ourselves if it is enough that the individual employee receives fair and just treatment, or that money is donated by the company toward worthy causes, while the larger corporation is engaged in unlawful and unethical activity? Should we consider the historical relationships of a company—for instance, Bayer's relationship to I.G. Farben following World War II? Should we buy shares or products from such companies? Is it even possible in today's world to segment one company with a given product line or service from another? Are not the others probably just as guilty?

Perhaps the ideas around good work are the crux of the issue. When we think, trust and buy, we must engage fully in making decisions that we might usually take for granted. To be mindfully engaged—even to think "Christianly" about buying—requires a lot of effort and involvement. Our responsibility covers more spheres of our lives than we might imagine. It begins with self-awareness and personal accountability. (We touched on this in Comment previously.)

So we might mindfully and responsibly consider:

  • Being more self-aware—Thinking about what influences our choices and what needs we are seeking to satisfy. What are your choices and selections saying about you?

  • Pondering globally—Is it sufficient for a company to do well by the citizens near its global headquarters, or are there indicators in other countries that need to be considered?

  • Researching and responding—Do we have useful knowledge critical to issues of business ethics and justice? By joining with like-minded people to research and respond to critical issues of business ethics and justice, we may find ourselves better equipped to make thought-filled choices.

  • Exercising our right to choose—Let companies and others know why you continue to buy or decide to abandon a product or company. See whether your opinion matters to a particular company or to those you influence. A couple of times we have been offended by ad campaigns for certain products and explained to our children why we would no longer buy those products, and as adults, they remember those decisions.

Keep in mind that you must practice personally those things for which you judge others. If you develop a standard by which you will measure others, it must first be applied to you and your own wealth and resources.

The various movements boycotting the business demon de jour give us pause, and rightly so. But Christian mindfulness—believing what we think with the mind of Christ—can partner trust with good work. It may just be the sharpest tool in the box. To discern what we know is not to believe everything we think.

Topics: Business
Janis Balda
Janis Balda

Dr. Janis Bragan Balda is Professor of Management at the Centre for Advancing International Management (AIM Centre) at St. George's University, where she also directs the specialty management degree program initiatives. Dr. Balda established the Peter F. Drucker Society of the Caribbean at SGU and leads research efforts in total health management in collaboration with the Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation [WINDREF].

Wesley Balda
Wesley Balda

Dr. Wesley Balda is Executive Director of the Centre for Advancing International Management [AIM Centre] and Professor of Management at St. George's University. Previously, he was the founding Dean at the George Fox University School of Management, where he developed their executive and professional MBA tracks, and created the first doctorate in management in the Northwest US. Prior to joining George Fox University, Dr. Balda served as the Director and Chair of the Executive Management and Ph.D. programs at Claremont Graduate University's Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management in California. In addition to leadership positions, Dr. Balda has taught at the Drucker School, Claremont School of Theology, Azusa Pacific University, and Hope International University; he also served as Director of Student Services at Claremont School of Theology, MBA director and chair of the business program at Hope International University, and Director of Institutional Research at Fuller Theological Seminary.


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