Article | MIT Sloan Management Review

Unconventional Insights for Managing Stakeholder Trust

by Michael Pirson and Deepak Malhotra


Initiatives to build and maintain trust with various stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers and investors, are at the top of the executive agenda at many organizations. But most companies don't really understand how to manage stakeholder trust effectively. In fact, the authors' research suggests that many trust-building initiatives and approaches that organizations invest in may be of questionable value. Others might actually be counterproductive. Managing stakeholder trust is difficult because there are many different stakeholder groups, each with its own particular needs and perspective. That is, trust is multidimensional, and it's not obvious which dimension executives need to focus on when dealing with any particular constituency. To answer such questions, the authors conducted a study of stakeholder trust in four different organizations. They analyzed the relevance (if any) of various factors: benevolence, integrity, managerial competence, technical competence, transparency and value congruence. In essence, the study asked what matters -- and to whom. Some of the results were unexpected, and a few were even counterintuitive, leading to the following key insights: Transparency is overrated; integrity is not enough; the right kind of competence matters; building trust with one group can destroy it with another; and value congruence matters across the board. The new framework challenges some existing beliefs and sheds light on areas that companies would be wise not to ignore. Indeed, as the authors illustrate, fundamental misunderstandings about stakeholder trust have tripped up corporations such as Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, Delta Air Lines, Mattel and Sprint. A deeper knowledge of stakeholder trust will help businesses reap numerous benefits, including improved cooperation with suppliers, increased motivation and productivity among employees, enhanced loyalty from customers and higher levels of support from investors.

Keywords: Values and Beliefs; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Organizational Culture; Business and Stakeholder Relations; Perspective; Trust; Cooperation;


Pirson, Michael, and Deepak Malhotra. "Unconventional Insights for Managing Stakeholder Trust." MIT Sloan Management Review 49, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 43–50.