Trust Issues in business and politics

In my presentations and workshops for corporate heads and company execs I invariably ask a simple question: “You have just completed a complex deal and a 100-page, detailed contract has been signed by the other party, every point agreed, every page initialed. Finally done, you stand up to shake hands. The other party turns around and simply walks away. Do you trust them?”

The answer, evident as it may seem, flies in the face of logic and highlights the entire basis upon which trust is built: the human factor. In my hypothetical scenario the refusal to press somebody’s flesh should make no difference whatsoever. A legally binding, detailed contract has been agreed upon and signed. Yet, we all know that legalities are simply an additional counterbalance to mitigating perceived risk. What works or doesn’t in politics as well as in business, depends, entirely upon the human factor. 

The very recent (and at the moment of writing still far from over) crisis in the EU, logically should never have happened. All parties wanted the same thing: a stable Europe and a strong Euro, thriving membership economies that make EU membership even more attractive. What they got is so far from that, that you have to wonder why. 

The answer, of course, lies where answers always lie when the stakes are high: personalities and personal visions, agendas and personal beliefs. The all too-human factor that makes it next to impossible to deal with the world and its many crises points, algorithmically. 

As technology becomes more pervasive, as big data and analytics factor more and more in evidence-based decision making, it is the human factor that emerges as the defining quality around which everything, ultimately revolves. 

It sounds paradoxical but really it isn’t. When you strip away everything that distracts us by automating it, passing its function to smart algorithms that are designed to learn and respond, what is left is the irreducible quality of ‘us’. The things that cannot yet be computed, the elements that cannot yet be done by a machine. And that’s exactly where business and politics, frequently fall down, faltering on the trust pyramid that requires four critical ingredients to fostering trust, in the first instance: 

  • Awareness
  • Understanding
  • Belief
  • Action


The fact that the US was able to make a satisfactory win-win deal with such a vastly different negotiator as Iran, over the contentious issue of nuclear capability and the EU couldn’t agree on what it had to do to keep its house from collapsing point to systemic faults driven by the human factor. 

The US deal was driven by professional diplomats whose stake was in getting a favorable outcome, the EU one was riven by politicians playing to their home, voter base and intent on saving face and scoring points. 

If there is a lesson here to be drawn it has to be that in the machine learning age, where everything that is not yet automated and smart data analysis driven, soon will be, what we really value the most is what we have always had: the ability to connect on a one-to-one basis, build relationships, foster understanding, use empathy to better understand each other and work together to overcome our differences and find ways to deliver mutual gains. 

This works for business as well as it works for politics. The fact that we have two cases, happening in the global stage, at a similar time that went in such separate directions suggests that we have not quite learnt the lesson that trust is a human requirement which takes time and effort to build and is easy to squander. 

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