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Why trust-building strategies should get the benefit of the doubt

By Cris Parker
Addressing the errors of the past can’t depend solely on the law. In today’s business environment, initiatives that encourage self-reflection and accountability deserve a healthy dose of scepticism but cynicism will only serve to stifle the potential.

You can’t blame people for feeling cynical. These days, it seems smart to distrust the motives of others and assume their every action is powered by self-interest.
You can’t go wrong expecting the worst, right?
There are so many reasons to be continually on your guard in an era of “alternative facts” and fallen idols. In recent times, all pillars of our society have revealed some rot at their core, whether it be in business, politics, media, religion, science or sport.
Scandalised headlines and royal commissions have lost their capacity to shock, yet there is still an argument for expecting moral behaviour from business. And there is a gulf between reasonable caution and cynicism.

Good things – positive progress ­– cannot happen unless we allow ourselves to believe in and support them.

I think most of us would consider ourselves to be altruistic, ready to put aside our self-interest (at least some of the time) for the benefit of others or a greater cause. And we know others who would behave the same way. 
Common sense should then tell us that organisations and industries contain people whose days are powered by good intentions – even if the organisations they work within are caught up in unethical practices.
However, when those people get together to create positive change, the best way to kill it off is with an eye roll, shrug and disbelieving attitude.
In January this year, the energy industry’s Energy Charter took effect, with its 18 signatory companies in the electricity and gas industries voluntarily agreeing to disclose how they are measuring up to a set of principles that require businesses to:

  • Put customers at the centre 
  • Improve affordability
  • Provide safe, sustainable and reliable energy
  • Improve customer experience

Support customers who are in vulnerable circumstances

 Having aggravated customers with inconsistent service and high prices, the industry itself accepted its effort to regain the public’s trust would be greeted with an “oh yeah?” by a disillusioned and distrustful public.
Electrical Trades Union of Australia national secretary, Allen Hicks, was reported as saying the charter was nothing but a “fig leaf” allowing the same for-profit practices to continue while real problems went unaddressed.
Energy Users of Australia chief executive, Andrew Richards, greeted the initiative with what he said was a “healthy scepticism”, while the NSW Energy and Water Ombudsman, Janine Young, said “positive cynicism” would be a more appropriate lens than blank disbelief.
Signatories to the charter submitted their first disclosure reports in October and the Energy Charter Independent Accountability Panel will publish an evaluation report on November 29.
The transparency of the process, in publishing the self-assessments of the signatories, should go some way to dispelling scepticism about the motivations and commitment of the participating businesses. I recently attended the Energy Charter Industry Working Group workshop where members articulated the challenges and learnings of the process. Industry regulators were present to hear the feedback, warts and all. It was a unique experience where fierce competitors came together, showed their vulnerability and contributed to creating a more sustainable industry.
When reading through the energy companies’ self-assessments, the wider community should acknowledge the honesty of owning up to mistakes or their failure to meet expectations.
The Banking and Financial Services Oath (The BFSO) – which I have worked with for over 5 years – is another initiative to earn trust and has also had to combat sceptics and cynics. The BFSO asks individuals to hold themselves to account.
While the number of signatories is relatively low, given the size of the industry, there are strong indications it is starting to make headway. Around 3,000 people have committed to the following principles:

  • Trust is the foundation of my profession
  • I will serve all interests in good faith.
  • I will compete with honour.
  • I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint.
  • I will help create a sustainable future.
  • I will help create a more just society.
  • I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same.
  • I will accept responsibility for my actions.

In these and all other matters; My word is my bond.

In a speech at The BFSO conference in August, chairman of APRA, Wayne Byres said initiatives such as the Oath are important building blocks for a stronger, more efficient, and more sustainable financial system. “They should be welcomed and embraced by industry leaders.”
When people ask whether the Energy Charter or The BFSO are going to make a difference, they need to look to the longer term, rather than expecting immediate results. There needs to be a level of tolerance for mistakes and a willingness to allow time for correction.
While publicly holding themselves to a high standard, there are no quick fixes to culture change, and many of the problems that beset both sectors cannot be solved without political support and regulatory reform.
Coming back to the point about whether cynicism is a smart approach when it comes to assessing the motives of others, psychology has some pointers.
It is commonly believed that cynicism is a sign of intelligence, yet psychological research shows no such correlation. Instead, studies show that people who perform well in cognitive tasks are less cynical.
“ … holding a cynical worldview might represent an adaptive default strategy to avoid the potential costs of falling prey to others’ cunning,” say social psychologist Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and evolutionary psychologist Daniel Ehlebracht from the University of Cologne in Germany. Studies on the relationship between trust, health and finances find that thinking the worst tends to lead to worse results. 
The psychologists cite US comedian Stephen Colbert, who told a university graduating class: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”
Let’s hope the development of these voluntary initiatives that encourage self-reflection and accountability are met with a healthy scepticism, rather than a reflexive cynicism that seems to serve no-one.

This article was originally published on The Ethics Centre's website


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The Oath

  • Trust is the foundation of my profession.
  • I will serve all interests in good faith.
  • I will compete with honour.
  • I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint.
  • I will help create a sustainable future.
  • I will help create a more just society.
  • I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same.
  • I will accept responsibility for my actions.
  • In these and all other matters;
    My word is my bond.