We place implicit trust in commercial brands: the Body Shop will not test products on animals; a bottle of Coca Cola – anywhere in the world – will not upset your stomach. Until recently, you would also trust your average British supermarket not to serve horsemeat in products advertised as beef. These supermarkets supply 85% of the UK market for groceries and had to perform a public mea culpa and promise to tighten up procedures following a recent scandal. The brands that betrayed trust – and the corporations behind them – remain, but a sense of unease and resentment lingers.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into emotions: how does it feel to be fed horse instead of beef? It’s a feeling of being powerless. In my mind I hear the Biblical phrase that describes the deception of Isaac by his son Esau: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Whether the deception focuses on meat, trading in dubious debt notes or dressing up as a sibling to cheat a parent – the loss of trust leaves a sense of powerlessness.
For its part, powerlessness is twinned with fear. It is the fear of someone else or something else having control over the things we hold dear and need dearly. It is the fear that I can’t control something vital in my life – what’s on my plate; what’s in my pension; or whether the bank I trusted is now more of a pebble than a (Northern) Rock.
When fear, anxiety and powerlessness pervade the public sphere, it might be helpful to draw on emotional intelligence to consider how to rebuild trust. Slowly and consciously, business, governments and civil society can counterbalance the feeling of fear by using the best tools we know from the world of faith.
Our first tool for rebuilding is leadership. Leaders – political, religious or commercial – need to embody change in their rhetoric and actions. Think of Julia Gillard’s attack on sexism as an example. Whatever else her political record will bequeath to history, her attack on sexism will remain iconic.
The second tool, one available to leaders, is ritual. Moments that are iconic and memorable can build trust. When President Sadat used a ritual moment of addressing the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 1977, opinions altered radically overnight. He identified fear directly and addressed it. His visit, the direct contact he established, built a trust that transformed the trajectory of the Middle East. Overnight.
Thirdly, show off the story by telling it and retelling it. Showing means transparency. Tell, explain and explain again what you are doing – how a business or government or NGO or religious institution has changed and will continue to function more openly. This alleviates fear. This rebuilds trust. I have a feeling that Pope Francis is doing something of this magnitude.
Lastly, I turn to my own Jewish religious tradition, which does not stop with story, ritual and repetition. The protection of individuals and communities is powerfully underpinned by laws and by vigorous debate about the values that underpin the practical, fair and contemporary application of these laws.
We seek the golden tonic that can rebuild trust and heal the corrosive effects of recent, very bumpy years for the private sector. For those willing to lead the change that is required, these four elements can provide an underpinning. And those leaders who share these underpinnings can work together in different languages and across cultures to build social institutions that the world can trust.
Author: Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism and part of the faith community at the World Economic Forum.
Image: A pony stands in a snow-covered field near Kibbutz Merom Golan, near Israel’s border with Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner