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Trust in Crisis: Can Leaders Upend the Trend this Year?

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January 10th, 2018

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:00pm

The Edelman Global Trust Barometer - it's not a pretty picture

We've followed Edelman's research in the last couple of years, with a particular interest in trust as it relates to the business world and leadership. We've asked and attempted to answer questions such as how leaders can restore eroding trust and close the trust gap.
As we await the 2018 Edelman Global Trust Barometer, due out this month, the need to improve trust has never been higher. We challenge you to examine your leadership behaviors and make essential changes to become a magnet for talent. Trust in organizations is a business imperative at this time of full employment when finding the right people will be increasingly difficult. Improve your trust quotient by taking steps outlined in this post. 
To recap, trust is in a state of crisis worldwide, with some of the lowest numbers ever recorded since beginning its research on this topic 17 years ago. Edelman's research finds global declines in all four categories it measures, Business, Government, Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and the Media. This marks a first since it began to measure reactions from the Mass Population category in 2012. According to the 2017 Trust Barometer, the mass population distrusts their institutions in 20 of 28 countries where the survey was conducted. Listen to Richard Edelman on the Implosion of Trust in this clip. 
What does this mean? Edelman’s research found that the majority of those interviewed lack a belief that the overall system works for them. Their fears and concerns have given rise to populist reactions across many Western democracies, including in our own USA. The trust gap between the group of respondents Edelman labels “The Informed Public”, those with college degrees who consume media and are financially sound, vs. “The Mass Population” meaning everyone else, has widened from 12 points to 15 points apart in just one year. And, in the USA, the trust gap between these two groups is the widest of all, a 21-point gap.
My guess is that you feel this undercurrent of distrust rising to the surface in your everyday life, in your workplace, and with your customer base.  

U.S. Business a Bright Spot – But Not for Corporate Leaders

Interestingly, despite the ever-growing trust gap between the Informed Public and the Mass Population, overall trust in the U.S. is up in 3 of 4 categories overall. And, the business category posted the highest gains in trust by those who are uncertain about their future.
USA 2017 Results 
  • Business: +7 points to 58%
  • NGO’s: +1 point to 58%
  • Government: +8 points to 47%
  • Media: remains the same at 47% 
Still, the picture is not at all rosy for CEOs. Trust in our corporate leaders fell 12 points this year, the largest drop of any category measured, followed close by Boards of Directors with a 10-point drop.
  • CEO’s: -12 points to 37%
  • Boards of Directors: -10 points to 35%
Leadership trust word cloud

What’s Behind the Business Leader Trust Gap?

Respondents across the globe ranked the top business practices that destroy trust as follows:
  1. Paying bribes to officials to secure contracts
  2. Paying executives 100x’s more than workers 
  3. Moving profits to other countries to avoid paying taxes
  4. Overcharging for products that people need to live 
  5. Reducing costs by lowering product quality
To counter these perceptions, CEOs and Boards must examine and revamp company business practices to eliminate trust drains to reverse the downward spiral. It will take concerted action and a change of culture to rebuild trust. According to Edelman, firms that focus on the following 5 practices fare best in climates of overall distrust.  
  1. Treat their employees well 
  2. Offer high-quality products and services
  3. Listen to their customers 
  4. Pay their fair share of taxes 
  5. Employ ethical business practices.

Putting People First

Overall, leaders build trust by putting people first, acknowledging their fears and concerns openly and moving to address them. The Edelman research showed that if trust is to be restored, it is time for a new operating model that puts people above profit. Those operating within this new model will partner with stakeholders, share authority and decision-making with those impacted by the decisions, and support the collective good over winning at all cost. This shift is illustrated by the following graphic from Edelman's Global Results Slideshare (click to view the entire deck). 
Edelman Trust Barometer 2017

The new model: With the People, not For the People

This research shows that it is not enough simply to have the above principles in mind when conducting business as usual. Rather, it is essential to engage employees in planning and decision-making, listen then respond to customers with changes to products or services that make sense for their lives, and participate in the greater societal good by tackling issues of grave concern, such as climate change, social justice, fair wages, educational opportunity and sound corporate governance and a government that works for its citizens. Unless an organization can show a commitment to the greater good, their messages and their products and services will be suspect in today’s skeptical environment. 

Leaders CAN Upend the Trend

Leaders who can show that they have taken the collective good to heart, can reverse the trust trend in their own sphere of influence and beyond. In the following TedTalk, renowned motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, asks "Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe." He shares examples of great leaders who engender loyalty and a deep sense of trust by putting people first. 
Why not start this process in your own organization by engaging your employees today? Randy Conley’s Leading with Trust blog poses several questions that great leaders should ask their employees to engender trust while improving the work culture and productivity at the same time. Consider regularly asking employees:
  • What about your job excites you?
  • What new skills would you like to learn?
  • Are you being challenged enough?  (You can also substitute these other words, “recognized, trained, given feedback”, etc.)
  • What makes your job harder than it needs to be? How can I help eliminate the roadblocks?
  • What are your ideas on how we can improve things around here?
  • What should I do more of?
  • What should I do less of?
  • What causes are important to you?
  • What is going on in your community that could use a boost from our organization?
  • How can we as co-workers collectively make a difference in our immediate community?
Ask, then truly listen and take action on what you hear. As noted in the Leading with Trust blog, your team will trust that they can “speak truth to power” if you prove that it is safe and their right to speak up. As a leader, your openness to hear and receive feedback will go a long way toward rebuilding trust in your leadership, and in your organization. That is something you cannot afford to leave to chance.

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.