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The fall and rise of trust in corporations and how it can be rebuilt.
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A brief overview of how even good works by corporations are now met with mistrust and how engaged leadership may be the answer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 - 10:00am


In light of the BP spill, the bank meltdown, sub-prime fiasco and other associated mismanagement debacles a quote from the often cheery Nietzsche seems appropriate. “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you”. A great deal of corporate trust has evaporated, and despite many good efforts by many good organizations, it will take a long time for it to return.

This past weekend The Acacia Group had an opportunity to present at a conference for the  British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants on the topic of Corporate Social Responsibility and the embedding of the triple bottom line into an organization. A number of thought provoking conversations emerged throughout the presentation as people shared what they are thinking about in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility. 
The audience was comprised of consultants with a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of experience, but the common thread seemed to focus on the need for truthfulness and integrity of behavior aligning with stated values. In sum, there is a strong felt need for CSR to be seen as the real thing, and not a trend or superficial exercise.
To introduce the session we asked each of the participants to respond to the question: `what do you think about when you hear the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility?’ The responses were thoughtful and reflective of an interest and curiosity about Corporate Social Responsibility. 
  • I think about trust and truth…

  • I think about the social aspects of a company’s impact

  • I think about whether or not CSR is only about the social impact or if it includes the environmental impact as well

  • I think about whether or not it is ok for a company to make money when the expense socially or environmentally is high

  • I think about whether or not this is a generational movement or does it cross generations

  • I think about the alignment or lack of alignment between an organization’s stated values and expressed values

  • I think about how important it is to be talking about this and how my own consumption choices are more and more being influenced by the social and environmental reputation of a company

  • I am looking for confirmation that there is a depth of understanding generally about what CSR means

These are people who know and who work with organizations and their conversation reflected `a need to be convinced’ that a company’s CSR story is genuine. As part of our presentation we provided three case studies and asked them to discuss where on the CSR pyramid (from Kelly McElhaney) they would place the company and the industry, and what they felt the leadership challenge to be for the organization in terms of their CSR. (For another angle on the CSR pyramid see our earlier blog on CSR and & Stakeholder Engagement – What’s your metaphor). Few were ready to accept that any of the examples including Marks and Spencer, were functioning above the managerial model of CSR.  Tough audience maybe, but perhaps indicative of a mismatch between expectations, delivery by large corp, and trust.
It would seem that there is another evolutionary model of CSR at play here, one that has an inescapable interdependence with the establishment of trust. First of all, fundamentally, corporations are waking up to the idea that the absence of a CSR strategy is a liability and that poor environmental or social performance minimizes stakeholder support and investment. So, they dutifully meet the demands of stakeholders and provide some surface level reporting or social engagement. Next, increased transparency and the viral nature of e-communications propels them down the line to make their CSR activities more public. But as evidenced by our experience this weekend, not everyone understands their efforts, and of those that do, fewer still trust the efforts. In sum, consumers expect more. The final stage of evolution then would be the internalized process of engaging in CSR strategically via enlightened and empowered leadership. As long as CSR is an external add-on or cost to the system and not actually a fundamental part of the leadership doctrine of the organization, cynicism and mistrust will prevail. The standards for performance are becoming better understood, and are getting tougher. Progressive organizations will get this and make sure they put the right people in place at the right time. .
The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to create new opportunities for excellence for our clients. For more information, visit www.theacaciagroup.ca


Dave Harrhy
The Acacia Group
Twitter = @dharrhy
Keywords: CSR | Canadian Management Consultants | Corporate Social Responsibility | The Acacia Group | kelly McElhaney | trust