Corporate anthropologist: Bond of trust is key in business environment

Published: Monday, April 4 2011 8:36 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — In business, building trust can take years. In contrast, destroying that bond of trust can happen in an instant — and regaining it can be nearly impossible, according to a renowned corporate anthropologist.

Karen Stephenson has spent three decades studying human interaction in corporate settings and will share her findings during two days of presentations at the University of Utah on Monday and Tuesday.

Her visit is the result of collaboration among the university's department of anthropology, the David Eccles School of Business and College of Social Work.

Speaking on the role of trust in business, Stephenson — who received her doctorate in anthropology at Harvard and currently lectures at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University — said, "the Achilles' heel of trust is called betrayal."

"If there has ever been betrayal, you can never ever reconstruct that relationship," she said. "You can try to 'patch up' the relationship … but if there is betrayal in the works, it is so poisonous that you can never really bring back the (original) full relationship."

Citing the example of infamous investment scam artist Bernie Maddoff, Stephenson defined betrayal as the "willful intent to deceive." Such egregious betrayals irreparably alter how people perceive, feel and behave toward the offender, she said.

"In a business setting, you just should not waste the only nonrenewable resource, which is your time, by trying to reconstruct a betrayed relationship," Stephenson said. "It's just not going to happen."

While much of her research has centered on face to face interactions between people, Stephenson has also studied the impact of technology and social networking on business relationships.

During her discussions, Stephenson will break down conventional theories of culture and structure by looking at culture as the smallest social network using a database of more than 500 organizations, from tribal to examples on Wall Street.

"For (millennia), we have been cheek by jowl … looking each other in the face," explained the Texas native. "Never before have we been this interconnected — both virtually and (traditionally)."

Since so much of human communication is nonverbal, she said, just because someone says something on LinkedIn or Facebook does not mean they can be completely trusted.

Until technology can offer more interpersonal, virtual "face-to-face" interaction, then most business relationships will lack the full measure of trust that could be developed during traditional means, Stephenson said.

"Even when people are tweeting, it is because they physically want to be together," she said. "That's never going to go away. We're just going to get better at it with technology."

For example, she said if a team of co-workers doesn't trust each other, and you could put them in the same room with the latest technology in order to solve a problem and it probably won't get done.

But if you have a team with a bond of trust, "you can scatter them to the four corners of the earth, give them sub-optimal technology … to try to solve a complex problem (and) they'll probably solve it because they trust one another."

"Trust will trump technology any day of the week," Stephenson said.

Email: jlee@desnews.com

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