In the U.S., trust is a hard thing to come by. Recent studies have shown that only 1/3 of Americans trust other people – the lowest level recorded since the General Social Survey first began tracking it in 1972. As individuals, this loss of trust impacts our happiness, our financial success and our ability to live our lives to the fullest. The decline has also damaged the growth and prosperity of businesses. Why? As trust declines, transactional costs increase and profits wither. By comparison, when trust is high, costs are reduced and profits increase accordingly.
Conversely, Denmark has been found to be one of the most trusting countries in the world, with one survey finding that 78% of respondents fundamentally trust other people. Further, the four Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) topped the list of nations with the highest social trust levels. These countries also enjoy some of the world’s strongest economies and highest standards of living.
I recall growing up on a small farm in Denmark, where my parents sold their produce at a small, self-service stand. The honor system was in play – customers selected the vegetables and fruits they wanted, totaled up what they owed, and paid by dropping their money into an open cigar box. There was no close supervision, no security cameras, warnings or contracts. If any of those customers had dishonorable intentions, they could have simply taken more groceries than they paid for. They could have chosen not to pay at all – or even to steal all the cash in the cigar box.
Today, you could still, in most cases, safely leave your wallet or purse outside a Copenhagen café and duck inside to enjoy a coffee. In almost every circumstance, it would still be there when you returned. How well do you think that situation would work out in New York City?
Perhaps Denmark’s remarkable safety and pervasive trust, which it shares with the other Scandinavian nations, could be attributed to the “bumblebee effect.” You’re probably familiar with the old story that, according to principles of engineering and physics, bumblebees should not be able to fly. Bumblebees don’t know this, though – and they go right ahead and fly very ably. Applied to the mystery of Scandinavia’s happy, trusting folk, the thought is that perhaps they simply never learned that they’re supposed be distrustful, so trust and honorable behavior prevail.
As a rule, women tend to be more trusting than men. The most successful business negotiators have traditionally been women – likely due to their tendency to display higher levels of trust and empathy than their male counterparts.
Yet when women enter the executive level business arena, they are plunged into a world that is still heavily controlled by men. The common business atmosphere they encounter is exemplified by the use of such sports-centric, competitive terms and concepts as offense, defense, strategy, and, most importantly, winning and losing. As a business philosophy, this is both primitive and counter-productive. It is a zero-sum, law-of-the-jungle mentality; one we could all do better without.
In commerce there will always be varying levels of company success and prosperity, but there need not be “winners,” “losers,” and a general atmosphere of fierce competition. One enterprise’s success does not have to be attained at the expense of others. In fact, one person’s success can actually help others achieve a more prosperous outcome too, with no detriment to themselves.