Books: The perfect antidote to fear and loathing in the office

Trust is a black and white issue in commerce. But although this book reminds us of bedrock values, its message is awkwardly delivered, reports Derek Higgs.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Trust Matters; By Sally Bibb and Jeremy Kourdi; Palgrave Macmillan, £25; MT price £22.50 (see panel, p36)

Siegmund Warburg wrote this about the importance of the reputation of a professional services firm. A firm's reputation, he said, 'is like a very delicate living organism which can easily be damaged and which has to be taken care of incessantly, being mainly a matter of human behaviour and human standards'. What he was describing was trust, and it matters.

I was privileged to spend a quarter of a century working in the firm that carried Warburg's name, before I took on the challenge of helping to change the culture and business model of a financial institution of the British old school. The contrast between the two in matters of trust could not have been more stark. I doubt the term 'networking' originated in Warburgs, but it felt like it did. Teamwork, the absence of stars and the sharing of information distinguished the firm in every sense. Trust in colleagues was absolute.

I had never heard the term 'silo' before I joined the financial institution.

But I soon learned that its culture was the antithesis of what I had grown up with and learnt to respect at Warburgs. Knowledge kept to oneself was power over others. Baronies, fiefdoms and self-promotion ruled. Doors were, literally and metaphorically, closed, not open.

This book is about these contrasts, these alternative approaches to relationships of trust and business cultures. Like me, the authors are not naturally 'either/or' people, but they (and I) acknowledge that in matters of trust, it really is black and white: you either do or you don't trust the individual or the firm. Like me, they think that trust matters a lot, and the book is a substantial commentary on this single indivisible issue.

So why did I find it a less than satisfying read? First, the book cannot decide whether it's a personal development primer, an organisational behaviour handbook or a straightforward business management tome. Its style - awkward boxed quotes, checklists and diverse mini case studies ranging from NGOs through start-ups to Fortune 500 companies - is inconsistent and its language downbeat.

Its choice of real-world references (Gerald Ratner, Matt Barrett, Nixon and Clinton all appear in one paragraph) is, to the business reader, sometimes eccentric. Although it acknowledges that trust cannot be manufactured, at no point does it recognise that people differ in their personal styles and characteristics. It is a simple, observable fact that some people are, by nature, more trustworthy and trusting than others.

Of course, the book contains a great deal of common sense and even wisdom.

With public trust in private enterprise at a low ebb, this is to be welcomed.

The rather dry sentence 'A leader who is seen as acting more for personal gain than for the greater good of the organisation will never be able to create a trusting culture' has its place when there is justifiable concern about excessive CEO compensation and the growing disparity between top and average pay in companies.

Shareholders who back performance schemes where the CEO is given a wholly disproportionate share of the total cake compared with his senior team should be aware of what this says about the culture of trust - let alone the prospects for satisfactory management succession - of the business in which they've invested.

But where the book, for all its diligence, really wobbles is in its willingness to see trust as an end in itself, rather than a means: a condition both necessary and sufficient. I began to lose the plot when I read: 'Simply put, the greater an organisation's focus on trust, the more profitable it will be.' This is to confuse correlation with causation and to over-simplify to an extent that puts at risk all that is good in the book.

A business governed by autocratic leadership in an internal atmosphere of fear and distrust will surely fare less well over the long term compared with one built on teamwork and trust. But to overstate the short-term effect of lack of trust on profit risks the wrath of Lucy Kellaway.

There is nothing fundamentally objectionable or mistaken about this book.

Indeed, it's a worthwhile reminder of bedrock values. But if you want prose that lifts off the page and tells you about the human spirit and its capacity to trust, this is what Siegmund Warburg wrote to George Bolton in 1950 when the latter was knighted.

'You deserve it above all for your single-minded courage in facing the truth, however hard and unpalatable; in giving due consideration not only to the bigger and self-evident matters, but also to the smaller and intricate things, which so often add up to big issues; in always taking the strenuous road rather than the way of least resistance; and above all in always fighting for the cause you consider right, however hard it may be.'

Worthy though the book is, I'm afraid you won't find writing like this in Trust Matters.

Sir Derek Higgs is a senior adviser to UBS Investment Bank and author of the Review of the Role and Effectiveness of Non-executive Directors.

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