Over the past few years, the media has reveled case after case of untrustworthy behaviour, from Madoff, to Libor to horse meat. Trust is central to human relations, so when it is threatened or lost we are left wondering ‘how can we restore trust?’ Philosopher Onora O’Neill argues we might be missing the point, that trustworthiness, more than trust itself, is what really matters.
The Cambridge professor, who has written and spoken extensively on the subject of trust, thinks organizations, companies and individuals must go beyond the popular commitment to ‘transparency’ and, instead, develop intelligent accountability mechanisms so that evidence of their competency, honesty and reliability (three essential ingredients of trust, according to her) can be assessed. “Transparency removes secrets, but it’s not a form of communication.” She posits that what’s needed is not more transparency, but better communication because trustworthiness is revealed not in words, but in clarity about actions.
She cites the growing number of retailers adapting ‘no questions asked’ return policies (pioneered by customer service kings such as US-based fashion retailer, Nordstrom), as a form of intelligent accountability: “If you buy socks and they assure you that they'll give you your money back if you are not happy, it invites to think that if they promise that, they probably have good socks. They don't need flashy ads saying that their socks are trustworthy.”
Ultimately, the point for organizations and governments is building a trust setup that anyone can judge. With powerful technological innovations on the horizon (drones, self-driving cars, etc.), the question of whether or not we can trust companies and government with not only information and privacy, but our lives, becomes increasingly pertinent.
Some checks and balances must indeed be put in place to measure trustworthiness, continues O’Neill. Trustworthiness is not always obvious, especially when we have to “assess complex and incomplete evidence, which the masters of spin and PR may be massaging, to make things look better than they are.”