Trust In Today’s Society
From the earliest days of humankind, people were dependent upon one another; trust played a key role in tribal life. Today, our lives are fragmented. In many parts of the world individualism rules and we live largely removed from those who determine important aspects of our lives. But, in order to feel safe and flourish, we still need to trust others to act with integrity and with our best interests in mind, or else the fabric of society can dangerously unravel to our detriment. Research published recently suggest this trust has been eroded to an alarming degree and we must look to our business leaders for change.
The Edelman Trust Barometer
The 19th Annual Edelman Trust Barometer, published a few weeks ago, surveyed more than 33,000 people across 27 countries on whether or not they trust institutions to ‘do the right thing’. As well as providing a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, snapshot on society, it serves as an important indicator for the institutions themselves, as a predictor of whether or not stakeholders will find them credible and support them in the future. The findings should be a wake-up call for us all.
Among the informed public*, the survey shows that, across the 27 countries, trust has actually risen marginally in the last year. Trust in business is higher at 68%, almost as high as that of NGOs, at 69%, however trust in both governments and media remains stubbornly low at 58%, with 73% of the general population left worried about fake news being used as a weapon. In addition to this, the developed world is pessimistic about the future, with only one in five feeling as though the system is working for them and nearly half of the mass population believing the system is failing them. This is before any effects on trust caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
At very many levels, this is something to worry about. Fingers could be pointed at a number of factors, but for those with a determination to do something about it, there is a silver lining. Seemingly, the most trusted relationships – significantly above those with government, NGOs, business or media – is that with people’s employers, and this is true even with the disenfranchised. More and more people are turning to leaders of their organisations to instigate change, rather than waiting for governments to impose it – up 11 points on the previous year, at 76%. The majority agree that business leaders can create positive change in equal pay, prejudice and discrimination, training for the jobs of tomorrow, the environment and personal data.
Trust And Leadership
So ‘take back control’ might be a slogan that should be plagiarised for business leaders, and more broadly at grass roots. In Skarbek Associates’ forthcoming book on strategy execution, there are featured a number of leaders who exemplify such an attitude, one of whom has magnificently turned around a general practice in Cambridgeshire so that it is now rated ‘outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission and has young GPs clambering to work there. Dr James Morrow argues, ‘The worst possible thing to do is go passive. It’s the wrong message for the team and the wrong message for progress. Change is inevitable. The choice we have isn’t between the status quo and some future state, but between two future states that we are heading towards; we can influence and shape what the future looks like – and we better start believing that.’
Belief, of course, requires trust in ourselves and in our teams, and for others to trust us. We can only choose to be trustworthy – as we can choose to be kind and respectful of others – and through leadership and example create a culture where trust is the expected norm, and then sit back and watch as the benefits manifest. Organisational behaviourist Prof Joel DeLuca, who conducted longitudinal research on 11,000 subjects across multiple industries in the US and Europe in a quest to answer the question ‘why is it that some people are so much better at influencing people and getting stuff done than others’, put it succinctly – ‘trust is the foundation of the most efficient and productive relationships, i.e. the quickest way to get things done.’ It is the lubrication that makes it possible for organisations to work.
Every one of us can work on our trustworthiness and in so doing, make a difference. There is no doubt that face-to-face communication goes a long way to building such relationships and should be sought at every opportunity, even (or particularly) if working in virtual teams. However, this trust can quickly evaporate if efforts are skewed towards self-success and not for the collective objective of the team.
The most effective leaders are transparent and honest, they tend to have a wide network and build relationships of trust, and practice ethical influence of others. These are the leaders that people can look to to make an impact and where companies will achieve significantly higher performance ratings, with employees more likely to have job and life satisfaction.
Some things do not change – human nature being one of them. Our tribal ancestors lived inter-dependently of one another and trust was the glue that bound them. It is still trust that binds us and now it is our employers that are being asked to effect the change needed to cement this. 73% say that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates – a calling, surely, for us to extend our networks and build relationships of trust within and beyond our organisations, to improve the lot of our communities, our organisations and ourselves.
In one assignment Skarbek undertook with a global law firm that had grown rapidly through acquisition and merger, the partners were taken through a simulation of managing a natural disaster. The exercise exposed some of the underlying challenges they experienced in working together. As one partner described it, “We don’t trust each other”, going on to say, “Not because we don’t like each other, or want to trust each other, but simply because we haven’t formed personal relationships with each other”. Trust can start at the individual relationship we have with our co-workers, investing in trust there and building it deliberately across geographically dispersed project teams contributes to trust across the organisation. At this time of uncertainty in the world, volatility in the financial markets and fear due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has rarely been a more needed time investment in building trust. The Edelman Trust barometer suggests businesses can play a leading role in continuing to build positive role models.
Source: 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report
*Represents 16% of total global population. Must meet 4 criteria – Ages 25-64 – College-educated – In top 25% of household income per age group in each market – Report significant media consumption and engagement in public policy and business news