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Published: August 26, 2005


Daniel Yankelovich: The Thought Leader Interview

Un-Gaming the System

S+B: You bring to mind a former investment bank executive I talked to recently. He said salespeople at his firm habitually showed up at six a.m., not to put in longer hours, but to poach clients who called their absent colleagues. He said he quit because he got sick of working in a place where that was common practice.

Yankelovich: That kind of gaming the system has been entrenched in the financial industry. And on top of that, there have been unconscionable conflicts of interest — to the point that most advice from Wall Street in the 1990s was tainted. Citicorp and JPMorgan and others paid billions of dollars in fines, and it wasn’t for nothing.

S+B: But then if everyone’s doing this kind of thing, how can a company abstain? Assuming that you can avoid illegality, aren’t these the kinds of practices that take hold precisely because they lead to competitive advantage for companies and individuals?

Yankelovich: I think they lead to competitive disadvantage. There are a number of companies, for example, that practice what I think of as the “tailgating” approach: Put an ethical spin on what you do, but play hardball all the way. I have tracked some of these companies, and if unenlightened self-interest were truly a source of competitive advantage, then their stock prices would be booming. But they’re not. As far as I can tell, they tend to lag behind their industries financially.

Many executives seem to understand that stewardship ethics is a path to growth, success, and competitive advantage. But, like everybody else, they compartmentalize. They have one set of practices under the heading “shareholder value,” and another set under the heading “social responsibility,” and it doesn’t add up to a coherent whole.

S+B: What would you say to a corporate leader who was trying to create a more trustworthy company?

Yankelovich: It isn’t just a matter of being an ethical person. You need to be very deliberate — about, for example, the way you listen. Monsanto got into its trouble with genetic engineering in the late 1990s because they didn’t listen carefully. They were oblivious to the perceived threat posed by what the Europeans call “Frankenfoods.” This was out there to see in the same way that the current climate is out there to see. It’s not all that subtle.

The boardroom in many companies is pretty isolated. People in corporations generally talk primarily to one another. And there are subcultures in the United States, like Detroit’s auto industry, which are almost unbelievable in their propensity for groupthink, isolation, and not listening. I worked for the automobile industry when Robert McNamara was president of Ford, and they haven’t changed for 50 years. They still have their blinders on.

So the role of dialogue as a vehicle for listening to stakeholders seems to me to be a particularly important way of developing stewardship values.

S+B: “Dialogue” has come to mean a very specific type of conversation. How would you describe your approach to it?

Yankelovich: In my book The Magic of Dialogue, I defined dialogue as having three indispensable elements. First, park status outside — so that people feel free to interact with each other as equals. That’s not easy to do. Second, suspend judgment while listening. Dialogue is the opposite of debate. You can’t win or lose. You don’t rush to judgment; you leave yourself open to actually hearing with empathy what other people say. Third, unearth and reveal assumptions. Make explicit the framework from which you’re operating. Remarkable things happen when people talk under those conditions.

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