With recent corporate failures, such as Carillion and Sears Holdings, and stories of tax avoidance by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and Facebook, trust in business, which has been in sharp decline since the 2008 financial crisis, now seems to be at rock-bottom.
Not only is this bad news in terms of social cohesion, but it is bad news for the bottom line, because research shows that organizations with stakeholders who trust, admire and respect them demonstrate consistently above average financial performance. Furthermore, a recent study found that people working in high-trust vs low-trust companies reported: 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% lower burnout.
Acknowledging the importance of the trust issue, what can business leaders do about it? What levers can they use to improve levels of trust with stakeholders?
A recent research paper, from Professor Kevin Money and Visiting Fellow Yetunde Hofmann at Henley Business School, explores how new advances in the academic study of ‘love’ may provide a new perspective on how business builds trust with society.
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From heart shaped emojis to the ethereal love of the metaphysical poets, the concept of love is extremely broad. In the context of this research, the authors suggest the definition: “Love is a positive emotional state focussed on another person or entity that has its foundation in the unconditional acceptance of the self and others.”
On the face of it this definition of love seems rather too personal and emotional for business to embrace in any meaningful way, especially business that is overly focused on financial targets and quarterly reporting. Nevertheless, we all combine cognition and emotion to make decisions and progressive organizations are increasingly aware of the important role emotion plays in business relationships and stakeholder choices.
What’s more, modern management theory emphasises the nurturing role of the business leader. In the post-‘command and control’ era, it is now understood that effective leadership, should include unconditional acts of respect, caring and kindness, communicating the worth of others and promoting a culture of well-being, and collaboration. It is but a short step to seeing this as an application of love.
According to the authors, a starting point for the application of love in business could be the relationships organizations have with employees. “If employees do not hold themselves and their leaders in a positive regard, how can they build positive and trusting relationships with other stakeholders?” The academic research on love reviewed in their paper suggests that a positive regard for the self is a foundation of holding lasting positive regard for others. Fostering intra- and interpersonal acceptance between employees therefore becomes a starting point for business to build trust with society.
With interpersonal relationships based upon unconditional acceptance and mutual dependency, love has the potential to radiate positive impact, to be contagious. For this to happen in the relationships between stakeholders and organizations, where often the attachment and loyalty stakeholders have towards corporations are not reciprocated, requires pro-active leadership.
Applying love to corporate/stakeholder relations the authors ask these questions:
- How can organizations foster environments where employees are encouraged to be more accepting of themselves and others?
- How can the acceptance of the self and others be embedded into the wider stakeholder engagement strategies of organizations?
- What is the role of senior leadership in embracing a loving approach in business?
- How can the impacts of incorporating love and acceptance into business strategy be measured?
Answers to these questions can potentially foster reciprocal positive regard between an organization its employees, customers, suppliers, etc. and the wider community it serves. The authors admit that the value of the concept in the field of business is yet to be tested, but their hope is that “organizations will embrace the concept of love and explore if it provides the many benefits to business it already offers to the world of interpersonal relationships.”
Read the Henley Business School discussion Paper: Can the Study of Love Help Business Build More Trusting Relationships with Society? Kevin Money and Yetunde Hofmann, 2018.