Skepticism, cynicism, suspicion… We can all agree that distrust is rampant in our post-fact world.

There is distrust of politicians, distrust of companies’ leadership, and distrust of aggressively-marketed products. Perceptions and feelings – not facts — are having an increasing impact on success. Substantial investments, which have recently been made in corporate social responsibility and communications by many companies may have proved useful in showcasing their transparency and integrity, but have failed to build trust between government, business and society. It’s no longer enough to be transparent about procurement or other processes. Customers need more. Staff need more. And shareholders need to be reassured that their company can inspire lasting trust.

What went wrong? Initially, compliance with the law, with ethical standards, and with national and international norms was designed precisely to generate trust in the transparency and integrity of a company. Too often, however, data were not accessible or sometimes very difficult to understand. Corporate social responsibility suffered from a one-way flow of communication. There was little questioning of our own companies’ transparency and no dialogue.

Legitimacy and trust cannot be bought. They need to be understood and accepted by all, both inside and outside of any company or corporation, all the way down their supply chains. No value can be created alone – an audience is needed to appreciate it. These values are rooted in dialogue and genuine openness.

Today, as citizens and consumers, we expect to be heard. Some of us even want the chance to play an active role in shaping our environments. Such citizens have a clear interest in having an impact on the business and industries they care about. When companies open up and proactively listen to all of the stakeholders in their environment, they enrich their perspective with feedback; they win in proving their authenticity and integrity. Sustainable business is based on accepting dialogue with everyone.

Scientists have highlighted the correlation between trust in management and profitability.1 Focusing on the separate value offered to customers, shareholders and other stakeholders is no longer enough to ensure sustainability. To maintain relevance and gain legitimacy, one needs to re-knit the fabric of trust and open up channels for dialogue.

[Virginie Coulloudon initially published this article on LinkedIn on 22 February 2017]

1 Gomez and Meynhart, Public Value in Performance, vol.6, issue 1, February 2014

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