Want to increase trust and decrease polarization? Fuse capitalism, activism, and social change

by | Feb 11, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

How capable is business of navigating a polarized world to bring people together, help stabilize our fragile world, and improve economic conditions?  

It’s a tall order. But if not business, who? And it’s also what survey respondents want.

Business continues to be viewed as the only institution that’s both competent and ethical, according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer. Edelman has been conducting this annual global survey since 2000. This year’s survey covered 32,000 people in 28 countries.

The global respondents rated the trustworthiness of business at 62%, NGOs (nonprofit organizations) at 59%, governments at 51%, and media at 50%. The U.S. scores are lower with business at 55% trustworthy and government at 42%. As in past years, “my CEO” is more trusted (64% globally) than CEOs generally (48%).

This year’s results show an increase in polarization; 53% of global respondents said that their countries are more divided today than in the past. Not surprisingly, the subtitle of this year’s report is “Navigating a Polarized World.”  The “growing mass class divide,” which started in 2013 in the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom, has now spread and  “metastasized” to three-quarters of the countries in the world, according to Edelman.

Edelman also reports that survey respondents continue to want and expect the private sector to step up and act. Businesses have performed well in the last three years primarily around dealing with the pandemic.

And compared to other institutions, businesses, especially global ones, have built-in advantages. Business have developed operational expertise, especially logistics; they have political influence; they can leverage communication resources; they can act fairly quickly; and they are viewed by the public as being somewhat neutral.

Yet, are the mounting expectations for business becoming unrealistic? That’s the question Edelman Vice Chairman and U.S. Chief Operating Officer Dave Samson asks in his post Business: An Unshakable Force in a Polarized World. He explains why he views polarization as a huge threat to all institutions, including business, even as he offers four action steps for business leaders.

After analyzing this year’s Edelman survey data, I was inclined to agree we’re all in a precarious position, business included. And if too few business leaders are willing to answer the calls to action, the situation is even more dire. Then I read two well-researched, well-written, and insightful slim books with powerful messages that give me hope.

The Capitalist and the Activist: Corporate Social Activism and the New Business of Change by Tom C.W. Lin is the first book to examine the fusion of capitalism, activism, and social change. Lin, who’s a law professor specializing in business organizations, corporate governance, and financial regulation, provides the history and context for businesses and social activists working together. Plus, he suggests a path forward.

The 170-page book begins by explaining the roots of new corporate social activism, which are based on interconnected developments in business, law, and society over the past few years. Lin then shares examples of how activists and businesses have already been working together to bring about societal change. For instance, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the North Carolina discriminatory bathroom law, the Parkland School shooting, and the #MeToo movement. Yes, success stories!

Taking a balanced view, he closes by considering both the promises and perils inherent in corporate social activism. (If this were easy, we wouldn’t be facing the many severe societal problems that confront us today, including disinformation, polarization, and inequities.) He also describes the unchartered territory we need to travel and describes ways to navigate it to achieve more social and economic progress.

As I was finishing the book, LeBron James earned the prestigious title of the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. James also is a case study in this book. He’s a stellar example of a contemporary athlete who’s also an activist – much different in his approach than what Michael Jordan did years earlier. The author’s point is that LeBron James has refused to be pigeonholed into being just an athlete. Instead, he is a human being who plays many roles and embraces them with gusto – athlete, activist, parent, teammate, and so forth – a motivating message for the rest of us.

The second book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens by Richard Haass, is about a different and more narrowly focused type of activism – the need to get U.S. citizens to become more involved in safeguarding our democracy. Haass, who’s currently the president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, is an experienced diplomat and policymaker. He’s served in several government jobs under under four presidents of both political parties.

Haass offers 10 obligations that American citizens should commit to so we can counter the ills  we’re experiencing, including polarization. The first seven obligations include being informed, getting involved, staying open to compromise, remaining civil, rejecting violence, valuing norms, and promoting the common good. All of these are relevant in global business as well as in corporate activism.

And that’s the important subtext of both of these books. All of us are in multiple roles. We’re not just employees or just citizens. We’re also capitalists, activists, community members, spouses, parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, amateur athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and so forth. We have responsibilities to ourselves, each other, our organizations, institutions, government, and society.

We can’t sit on the sidelines and absolve ourselves of responsibilities, even if we didn’t think we signed up for this game. Instead, we need to get involved to protect and advance our rights, our way of living, and the planet. And if we prefer others to lead the charge, such as business leaders, we should expect them to delegate tasks to us. We need to follow through as well as take responsibility for all of our multiple roles.

How about working hard and playing hard – together? And even better, let’s get on the same team to make a better future!


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