In Response to the Crisis of Trust, First Do No Harm

Since the start of my career in 1996, countless surveys, books and TED Talks have chronicled the slow-motion collapse of public confidence in the integrity of institutional pillars of modern societies, including government, corporations, the financial system, the news media and nonprofits. No doubt, some strands of this research paint an alarming picture of a wary world losing the lifeblood of its social and economic order, while the intensifying assault of trust-crushing events defies the palliations of traditional PR, marketing, investor relations and HR.

In my 2012 byline on the “crisis of trust” in PRWeek, I echoed this apprehension:

“In aggregate, we see clear and convincing evidence of the sorry state of trust. These are not outlying data points that capture bursts of skepticism and anger. These are not negligible downticks that punctuate an otherwise healthy trend. These are not “normal” cycles of discontent that rise and fall with the rise and fall of good things such as economic growth and bad things such as unemployment. Most recent confidence, trust, or reputation surveys represent snapshots of a multi-year or multi-decade descent into broad-based “structural distrust.”

Since then, the volume and quality of data on the state of trust has increased substantially, but the central conclusion for organizational leaders hasn’t changed: first, do no harm, and understand that the only way to increase trust is to increase trustworthiness. Think of trust as an emotional response to the observed regularities in the behavior of organizations and individuals. Trust increases when behaviors align with expectations, and when governance and accounting standards equitably safeguard the economic interests of all stakeholders.

When leaders ignore this truism, they can lapse into counter-productive responses. Consider, for example, this short documentary Trust Crisis: Marketing’s Biggest Challenge produced by the UK-based Campaign Magazine. Featuring comments from some of the biggest names in marketing and advertising, the film focuses on the repercussions of depleting trust in the advertising industry, especially in the wake of the rebate scandal.

Also consider the findings of this EY survey focusing on the vital signs of trust in the employer-employee relationship. Sadly, the responses from 9,800 full-time employees worldwide conform to the broader pattern of systemic distrust. Specifically:

  • Close to one in six respondents globally have “very little” or “no trust” in their current employer.
  • Equal opportunity for pay and promotion is among top factors influencing trust.
  • Globally, baby boomers are the most trusting generation of their employer (51%), boss (52%) and team/colleagues (53%). Generation X is least likely to place “a great deal of trust” in their employer, boss and team/colleagues.

True, the decline of trust represents a threat no less urgent or complex than, say, the risk of global environmental disaster or the descent of human civilization into a period of political wilderness. But there’s not much use in hyperventilating about the magnitude of any existential threat. Better to think about the way forward in terms of a series of decisions informed not only by a clear vision of desired outcomes, but also by a strong “moral compass” whose malfunction is arguably the most important cause of the epidemic of distrust.

As all other systemic threats and vulnerabilities, the crisis of trust raises two fundamental questions: 1) What should organizations do in response? 2) What should organizations stop doing?

They should certainly stop trivializing the loss of trust. When the creators of the Campaign Magazine film frame the issue as “marketing’s biggest challenge”, they are trivializing the problem, even if they’re not technically wrong. The erosion of public trust is not a marketing challenge, just as poor employee morale is not, at its root, an HR challenge at all. Fundamentally, these are leadership challenges, and framing them any more restrictively only predisposes organizations to half measures and hollow reassurances that deepen distrust.

In the Campaign documentary, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, says: “A lot of people talk about the word trust and I take a little bit of an issue with that. You can call them relationship questions. There are clients we have deep and meaningful relationships with.” I don’t think it would be too cynical to translate this statement as: “Sure, the industry’s leadership has failed many clients, but not all of them. So what’s the big deal?”

To the extent that they trivialize the problem, organizations will continue to apply the Band-Aid of cosmetic fixes to the gushing wound of desecrated trust. That is not the way forward.

Further Reading

  • Our World in Data, a public-good resource developed by Oxford University, recently published an impressive compilation of data on the state of trust worldwide. One of the important takeaways here is that trust is not a monolithic phenomenon. There are significant variances in trust attitudes and “trusting behaviors” across demographic categories.
  • In It’s the real thing, The Economist explores the uses of simulated “authenticity” as an unlikely antidote to the waning faith in corporate and product brands.

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