Jul 22, 2002

From the Archives

Americans Speak: Enron, WorldCom and Others Are Result of Inadequate Moral Training By Families

As America has been rocked by financial and sexual scandals in the past several months, resulting in a collapse of public confidence in leaders and a serious financial collapse on Wall Street, the public is triangulated in its response to recent shenanigans: some are ambivalent, many are angry, and millions are interested in back-to-the-basics reforms. A new national survey by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, shows that people’s reactions run the gamut from hostility to indifference – but that few Americans retain a high level of trust in the leading cultural influencers, such as corporate executives.

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Awareness Is Far From Universal

Although the news media have provided constant coverage of the scandals involving Enron, Catholic priests, Tyco, Xerox, Martha Stewart, Arthur Andersen, Qwest Communications, WorldCom and others, an amazing proportion of the public has remained at arms length from the fiascos. Slightly less than half of the adult public (47%) claims to be familiar with the nature of the recent scandals. In fact, just one out of every eight adults (13%) asserts that they are “very familiar” with the irregularities at such organizations. Awareness of the substance of these crises was twice as common among men as among women, twice as likely among people from households with incomes above $60,000 as among those with incomes below $35,000, twice as common among whites as among Hispanics, and double the likelihood among people who are active in their faith practices as among those who are less spiritually involved.

Half of all Hispanic adults said they were not at all familiar with the issues involved in these cases. Similar disinterest in these matters was discovered among people who are associated with faiths other than Christianity (46% of whom said they were “not at all familiar” with the facts), adults who are not registered to vote (45%), and residents of the western states (46%).

Confidence Plummets

Although many adults were not on top of the facts, a widespread sense of disappointment has reduced people’s confidence in opinion shapers and cultural influencers. When asked to describe their level of confidence in seven types of influencers, only one of the seven – teachers – was awarded “complete confidence” or “a lot of confidence” by at least half of the public (53%). At the bottom of the list were executives of large corporations (12% had “complete” or “a lot of confidence” in them), followed closely by the producers, directors and writers of TV and films (13%), elected government officials (18%), and news reporters and journalists (20%).

People made a clear distinction between their views of the executives of large corporations and those who own small businesses. The latter group of individuals was given “complete” or “a lot of confidence” by 41% of the public – more than three times the level assigned to leaders of large businesses.

Researcher George Barna, whose firm conducted the survey, is the author of A Fish Out of Water, a newly-released book on leadership challenges and practices. In his book, Barna notes that the primary means of gaining people’s trust and confidence is by demonstrating strong character. “People rely upon their leaders, whether they are in the business sector, in ministry, government or within their own family, to model virtuous behavior and appropriate values. By virtue of the opportunities they encounter, every leader will be tempted to grab for power, prestige, publicity or other perks. What separates the good from the bad is not their skills and abilities but their character – and there are always cues that reflect the person’s true inner nature. When commitment to profits and position trump commitment to propriety and purity of motive, such moral failures are virtually inevitable.”
Restoring lost trust is extremely difficult reports Barna – and it will apparently be particularly challenging among America’s oldest residents. One of the most astounding outcomes of the research is the scant confidence in any cultural influencers maintained by people 55 or older. Only 1% of these elder citizens had “complete” or “a lot” of confidence in big business executives. In fact, there was not a single type of influencer tested for which even one out of four adults in the 55-plus crowd had such a level of confidence. Their trust levels ranged from highs of 22% for teachers, 19% for owners of small businesses and 16% for ministers and priests to lows of 7% for news reporters and journalists, 7% for elected government officials, 4% for producers, directors and writers of TV and films, and the 1% for corporate executives.

Other noteworthy patterns included the fact that upscale adults generally had higher levels of confidence in the influencers than did people with limited education and low incomes; and whites had greater confidence in the influencers than did Hispanics or blacks. Political party affiliation was related to confidence levels. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to possess substantial confidence in small business owners (57% versus 38%, respectively) and in executives of large corporations (16% vs. 8%). Democrats were more likely than Republicans to hold high confidence in teachers (62% vs. 43%), news reporters and journalists (28% vs. 15%), and those responsible for TV and films (16% vs. 4%).

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Causes of the Problems

In his new book, Barna indicates that most people rely upon leaders to solve problems by directing, motivating, mobilizing, and resourcing people toward a commonly accepted vision of a better future. The current research emphasized, however, that business executives involved in the recent scandals caused problems, rather than solved them or fell victim to unavoidable circumstances. A majority of adults (55%) believed that greed or immorality motivated the difficulties. Just less than one-third (31%) stated that a lack of professionalism was to blame, either in the form of practical incompetence (13%), bad decision-making that did not have illegal or inappropriate motives (10%), or inferior internal communications (8%).

The population groups most likely to cite moral ineptitude or greed included the 55-plus segment, men, whites, Protestants and upscale individuals.

Protecting the Future

Few people feel that the problems could have been completely avoided. However, most adults believe that various actions could have greatly reduced the probability of such incidents occurring. When posed with six possible strategies for prevention, the two that topped the charts by a substantial margin related to moral education. The most prolific support was shown for “parents spending more time teaching their children appropriate values.” Three-quarters of all adults (72%) said that had parents done so the recent crises might have been completely or mostly avoided. Similarly, almost two-thirds of adults (62%) said if American society had s stronger moral foundation such affairs might not have happened.

Government solutions were seen as having some affect, but not as great as that of moral equipping. Slightly more than half of all adults (55%) said that stricter enforcement of existing government regulations would have completely or mostly prevented the problems experienced, while half (50%) said that instituting more demanding regulations would have done the trick.

The least effective strategies were deemed to be providing religious training in schools (41%) and providing business executives with better training in morals and ethics (40%).

The response patterns indicated that moral and religious training were of particular interest among adults 55 and older. Better moral training by parents also had particularly strong appeal among Hispanics (83% of whom said that would have completely or mostly prevented the problems), born again Christians (82%) and Republicans (80%). Greater religious instruction, without proselytizing, was a viable solution most prominently in the South (53%), among people with an active religious faith (58%), born again Christians (54%), Protestants (48%), conservatives (45%), and people 55 or older (52%).

People Are Seeking Moral Leadership

Barna noted that recent surveys of several highly regarded national leaders, including President Bush, showed that the esteem of those leaders was largely founded on people’s trust in their character and moral convictions. “Skills can be learned but character is a reflection of the heart that is formed from a person’s early years and emerges as they age. As society becomes more complex and fast-paced, one of our coping mechanisms is to assign heightened degrees of authority and trust to our leaders. We are seeing increasing numbers of people recognizing that political solutions are short-term fixes for deeper problems and issues. Americans are searching for leaders whose character makes them trustworthy.”

The research also drove home the importance of a person’s upbringing as the mirror to both their character and values. “More than many people want to admit, how we train our children determines their values, views and behaviors as adults. If you want a moral society, you must develop it by raising children who understand and embrace good values and standards. Leadership based on consensus is always prone to satisfying the lowest moral standard. Leadership based on firm and unchanging standards of virtue never goes wrong.”

While Barna Research frequently conducts surveys that evaluate the spiritual condition of the nation, Barna indicated that there were surprisingly few differences in perspective between born again Christians and other adults in relation to the recent moral crises. “It is in times of crisis – whether it be terrorist attacks, financial abuses, sexual scandals or ludicrous judicial rulings – that a foundation of firmly held moral convictions rises to the surface and serves as a rallying point for millions of otherwise contentious or disconnected people. Sometimes it takes some pain and suffering to nudge people to an understanding of what they really believe and what truly matters in life.”

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Research Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews conducted in July 2002 among a nationwide random sample of 1012 adults. The questions regarding business ethics and recent business crises were conducted among a “split sample” – that is, among roughly half of the total sample of respondents (n=480). The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the partial sample is ±4.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups would be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation and its churches.

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Q: In general, how much confidence do you have that (INSERT LEADERS) will consistently make job-related decisions that are morally appropriate? Do you have complete confidence, a lot of confidence, only some confidence, or not much confidence?

a lot
not much
executives of large corporations
owners of small businesses
elected government officials
ministers, priests and other clergy
news reporters and journalists
producers, directors and writers of TV and films

Q: How familiar are you with the irregularities related to Enron, Xerox, Tyco and WorldCom? Are you very, somewhat, not too or not at all familiar with the difficulties related to those companies?

very familiar
somewhat familiar
not too familiar
not at all familiar
don’t know

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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