Sunday, March 24, 2013

Trust is Everybody’s Business

Note: This article was published in the March 17-23 Issue of New Europe. You can find it here on page 11

Trust is everybody’s business – or at least it should be.

Trust is the foundation for an effective society. At a basic level, we trust that we will wake up in the morning. We trust that the sidewalk we walk on will not give way! We trust that the post will be delivered, that we’ll get what we order in restaurants, that the airline pilot will land the plane safely. We trust that others will do their jobs so that we can continue leading productive, happy lives.

In a similar act of faith, we trust that governments will repay their debts, and hence, we are willing to lend them more money. We believe that our paper currency is worth something. Businesses run on the conviction that they will be able to procure the raw materials they require, and through careful planning and data analysis, they expect that consumers will want their products. Trust enables individuals to do business with each other. Business creates wealth. To reiterate - the economy runs on trust.

Authoritative research by Douglass North, Paul Keefer, Stephen Knack, and Paul Zak, among others, demonstrates that the presence or lack of trust has profound consequences for the development of public institutions. Where trust is present, it has a stabilizing effect on expectations, and people are more likely to adhere to their commitments.  Norms are accordingly respected at the societal level, to the extent that when these norms are breached, sanctions are enforced. Francis Fukayama has noted that trust reduces the cost of transactions, as individuals need to spend time and effort to investigate the genuineness of other parties’ stated intentions. As a result, societies that have higher trust levels are more prosperous.[1]

Trust can not only help a nation become prosperous, it can also strengthen individual success and promote happiness. Suppose we trusted no one, would it be possible for us to continue to live complete, fulfilled lives?

So how do we inculcate trust in ourselves, in those around us, and in our societies?

A good place to begin is within oneself. The ancient Hindu scriptures state, “Yatha Drishti, Tatha Srishti”; “as one’s vision, so is the creation.” To create an atmosphere of trust, one needs to be aware of what is happening in the world within. As the spiritual Guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “When we are able to perceive, and observe our environment with greater clarity, then we are able to see how interconnected life on this planet is. We are able to make connections that we might not have seen earlier. So a first step to creating a beautiful society on this planet is achieving clarity of mind.” Meditation, Yoga, and breathing techniques can help calm the mind and bring clarity of thought. Awareness of our thoughts and emotions can temper our behavior and interaction with people around us. Self-awareness can also help us grow in terms of our own abilities and our confidence to be successful in our efforts.

The next step is to earn the trust of others – to encourage them to have faith in us. By committing ourselves to be trustworthy, we must be able to “walk the talk” and put ourselves in others’ shoes. Consistency in action, and empathy are important. When people see that we understand their point of view, and are willing to work with them towards a solution, they are more likely to trust us, and then to collaborate with us to achieve common goals. Being in a calm and clear state of mind can strengthen our ability to appreciate and understand others’ points of view.

In some societies, a lack of trust – among individuals, or between people and their government – has triggered change, in some cases fundamental transformations of the relationship between government and society, toward the achievement of more public trust.  All too often, however, change is stymied by turmoil and bloodshed. Fragile and post-conflict states are plagued by the lack of trust – in institutions, and between people. Douglass North writes, The inability of societies to develop effective, low-cost enforcement of contracts is the most important source of both historical stagnation and contemporary underdevelopment in the Third World.”[2] The World Bank and the United Nations have highlighted the need for “confidence-building-measures” in rebuilding conflict-afflicted societies in recent reports.[3]

The need of the hour is for society to refocus on building trust and revive the human values of compassion, friendliness, and love. A practical way of complementing institutional approaches is through meditation and self-reflection.

After all, trust is everybody’s business.

[1] See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Touchstone Books, 1996.
[2] See Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, 1990, P.54.