By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Trust combines seemingly contradictory properties in such a way as to make it as unique as it is uniquely valuable to humanity.

  • It’s the glue that holds people together in pursuit of all the essential things that the individual cannot achieve alone.
  • It’s the grease that permits rapid, reliable, low-friction interaction that supports the fundamental interdependence of humanity at all levels of scale.

Without trust virtually nothing is possible. Humanity’s most basic and fundamental relationships – from friendship to marriage, from commerce to alliances of any sort -- rely on trust.

And yet in the world today trust is low – and dropping fast.

Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer, which surveyed more than 33,000 people in 28 countries, shows the largest-ever drop in trust in “the system” — made up of business, government, NGOs, and the media.

  • 53 percent of those surveyed globally felt that the system is not working for them -- and an additional 32 percent were unsure.
  • CEO credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37 percent, falling in every country surveyed.

The survey shows that people don’t trust in officials or experts, and they trust individuals over institutions 55 to 45 percent.  They also trust search-engine results more than the curation of human editors, and they believe leaked information over official company statements by almost two to one.

Perhaps most disturbing, the bias against information that runs counter to respondents’ current beliefs is significant. So if people can find anything that confirms their biases, they are likely to trust it uncritically – even if it is demonstrably untrue.

Dissatisfaction high

“There are a lot of customers and employees in that unhappy 85 percent who reported being skeptical, at best, that the system is working for them,” says Eric J. McNulty, the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

“Their dissatisfaction is not good for business or government. If we had the ability to step back and view the deterioration of trust dispassionately, I think we’d judge it a system heading toward significant reorganization and even possible collapse,” he adds.

“The findings suggest we are in a situation where those who aspire to lead need to fundamentally rethink what they do and why they do it,” McNulty says.

Leadership compact

One group taking action on that front is the World Economic Forum. It has put forth a Compact for Responsive and Responsible Leadership, which asserts that the sustainability of corporations and society at large are interdependent.

In the compact, the traditionally microeconomic activities of executives are inextricably linked to the macroeconomic and social needs of the larger system in which companies operate.

McNulty says leaders can have an impact on trust levels by how they see themselves relating to the organizations they lead:

  • some are leaders of systems;
  • some are leaders in systems; and
  • some are leaders with systems.


Fears widespread

As trust has dropped, fears have risen.

According to Edelman’s most recent study, 53% say the pace of change in business is too fast and more than half worry about losing their jobs to a range of threats -- such as a lack of training, immigration, global competition, and automation.

“With this level of anxiety and distrust, the status quo isn’t sustainable. It’s time for more people to step up and lead with the system,” McNulty says.

Fortunately, when leaders do that, trust grows.

Among ways that leaders of organizations can build trust within their organizations:

  • treating employees well – it ranked as the very best way;
  • investing in training and building skills – which makes a firm more competitive and offsets worker anxiety;
  • paying their fair share of corporate taxes also ranks high in trust-building, while moving profits to tax havens was a top trust-buster in the Edelman survey;
  • producing high-quality products and services.

Hope survives

The Edelman survey found that all hope is not lost. Seventy-five percent of respondents agreed that business “can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”

When it comes to building trust, win-win solutions are the coin of the realm.