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 / Fall 2005 / Issue 40(originally published by Booz & Company)


Daniel Yankelovich: The Thought Leader Interview

America’s most eminent pollster says the current epidemic of business scandals must be healed through a shift in norms, not laws.

Photograph by Matthew Septimus
What happens to businesses when they lose the public’s trust? According to author, researcher, and social trend analyst Daniel Yankelovich, they sacrifice a particular type of asset, intangible but all too consequential: the benefit of the doubt.

Dan Yankelovich has played a dual role in the sphere of American thought. On the one hand, he has been a keen-eyed outsider: “the founding father of public opinion research” (as television journalist Bill Moyers put it) who has surveyed and interpreted citizens’ and consumers’ attitudes since the 1950s. (He founded the market research/public opinion research firm Yankelovich, Skelly and White in 1958, and created the New York Times/Yankelovich poll in 1975.) On the other hand, he is also a consummate insider. A long-standing advisor to corporate and political leaders, he has either sat on or presided over the boards of CBS, US West, Brown University, the Concord Coalition, the Educational Testing Service, the Fund for the City of New York, and the Kettering Foundation. As both insider and outsider, he has been a consistent advocate of moral integrity, especially on the part of organizations. His credentials make him a critical player in the ongoing debate about the meaning of corporate scandals and business legitimacy.

We found ourselves participating in that debate recently at this magazine when Booz Allen Hamilton and the Aspen Institute collaborated on a global study of corporate leaders’ attitudes about ethics and values. (See “The Value of Corporate Values,” by Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, s+b, Summer 2005.) The researchers quoted Mr. Yankelovich as saying that the public’s widespread cynicism toward businesses today is the third wave of public mistrust about corporations in the past 75 years. The first wave occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s; the second, sparked by the Vietnam War, lasted from the early 1960s until the early 1980s. Then American business restored its reputation, claims Mr. Yankelovich, “regaining much of the prestige and trust it had lost…. But it is now squandering that trust once again. As it does so, the groundwork of mistrust laid down in earlier years will make it far more difficult to recover.”

This quote comes from his book in progress, tentatively titled Stewardship Ethics, to be published by Yale University Press in early 2006. In the book, Mr. Yankelovich argues that the legal and regulatory actions of recent years, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the recent spate of SEC investigations (more than 600 involving fraud in 2004), will not prevent future scandals. The real culprit is social norms: attitudes about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. When people indulge in “creative accounting” or hide perks and rewards from sight, they do so because they have tacit permission from the norms of the day: After all, everybody’s doing it. “You cannot fight norms solely with laws,” concludes Mr. Yankelovich. “You need to fight norms with other norms.”

Mr. Yankelovich is currently the chairman of three organizations: DYG Inc. (a market research firm tracking social trends), Public Agenda (a not-for-profit public opinion research firm, cofounded with former secretary of state Cyrus Vance), and Viewpoint Learning Inc. (which designs and conducts special-purpose dialogues for business and public policy organizations). His books include The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon & Schuster, 1999); Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World (Syracuse University Press, 1991); and New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (Random House, 1981). He visited s+b’s New York office in June to talk about the link between profitability and corporate reputation, and the challenge of putting an “ethic of stewardship,” as he calls it, into practice. We thank Steven Rosell, president of Viewpoint Learning, for his help in arranging this conversation.

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