Investing in Trust Now

August 7, 2020

Much of what has occurred in these past four months has been beyond the control of business leaders, however, there is one thing that is actually completely within their power which can create their destiny.  As Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

WHY CARE ABOUT TRUST NOW?

Last month, I was asked to speak to 2,000 business owners who wanted to know how to build trust.  Their primary concern was that the eventual return to the physical workplace would require them to be extremely trustworthy partners to their employees,vendors,customers and communities.  They wondered how to build trust in this era of rampant distrust?

In preparation for this event, I decided to survey the state of trust with our own clients. I asked business owners and leaders from a range of industries to rank just how important developing trust was with their employees and customers.  Each leader ranked trust-building as either the most important thing to focus on in the next six months or a top priority.

This year’s results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer were grim, and that was in January, 2020, before the economy and social norms turned upside down.  Despite a strong global economy and nearly full employment, none of the four societal institutions (government, business, NGOs, and media) were trusted.  Corporate malfeasance, government corruption, fake news and a growing sense of inequity and unfairness in systems all contributed to the plummeting trust barometer.  

Employees and consumers are increasingly craving trustworthy relationships, too.  According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, 92 percent of employees say they now expect their CEO to speak up on one or more issues ranging from income inequality to diversity.  Nearly three quarters of employees, or 73 percent, expect their employer to offer an opportunity to shape the future in a positive way.  Eighty-one percent say trust  is one of their top reasons for choosing a brand.

From a purely biological standpoint, trust also produces oxytocin in the body, which leads to feelings of happiness.  In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Paul Zak explains that people at high-trust companies report 74 percent less stress than people at low-trust companies.  Employees at high-trust organizations also experience 40 percent less burnout, feel 106 percent more energetic, take 13 percent fewer sick days and experience 76 percent more engagement in their work.

Trust is powerful and beneficial at the societal, consumer, and employee level.  With COVID, the economic downturn and the distrust in government stemming from police brutality, trust may be the deciding factor for institutions to survive and perhaps also thrive during the next year.

WHAT IS TRUST, REALLY?

 I like the definition used by the first-ever Trust Fellow at Oxford University, Rachel Botsman. She says that trust is, in essence, “a confident relationship with the unknown.”  As toddlers, we would jump fearlessly into the pool, into our mother’s arms.  Even though we didn’t know how to swim, we knew she would catch us.  Botsman explains that we require a force to embolden us to leap towards the unknown, and that force is trust.

HOW DO I LEARN TO BE TRUSTWORTHY AS A LEADER?

Becoming trustworthy is possible.  It is learnable.  But it is a function of behavior.  As Carl Jung wrote, “You are what you do, not what you say you do.”  Leaders who want to model and build trust in their organizations must focus on reliability, consistency and competence.  If you say you will send an email by 5pm, do not miss that deadline.  If you can’t make that deadline, don’t promise it.  Every time a leader fails to follow through, trust is eroded.  Maya Angelou said it best, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”  

There are three drivers of trust, Authenticity, Logic, and Empathy, according to Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss who have studied the dimensions of trust.  This is the Trust Triangle.  People lose trust in others when one of these three drivers begins to wobble.  Leaders can examine their past behavior and discern which of their own wobbles they may need to stabilize in order to build trust.

  • Authenticity: “I experience the real you.”  
  • Logic: “I know you can do it; your reasoning and judgment are sound.”
  • Empathy: “I believe you care about me and my success.”  

In our client survey, half of the respondents identified Empathy as the driver that caused trust wobbles for them over the past 8 weeks.  Empathy is the one ‘wobble’ that is within your control.  Authenticity wobbles have occurred for many leaders who are not permitted to be fully transparent about evolving plans for layoffs or who have created Black Lives Matters statements that have exhibited contradictory actions in their hiring and inequity track records.  Logic was certainly a wobble of many who were overly optimistic in March (including me).  Logic is also a trust wobble when there is implicit bias or other cognitive distortions that impede sound judgment.

If empathy is your wobble, people won’t trust you enough to lead them.  Empathy is not only being able to sense what another person is feeling, but also aligning your own behavior with what you can sense the other person is feeling.  Empathy is learnable through practices like listening, looking for the person behind physical objects, debiasing techniques, and even talking with strangers.  It is entirely possible to cancel a contract while also being empathetic and building trust.  We can do difficult things like eliminate positions, police our communities, speak truth to justice and give difficult feedback while still sensing what the other person is feeling and connecting with shared humanity and compassion.

 The benefits of high-trust organizations and communities are endless.  Permanent uncertainty, the perpetual state of change, is increasingly our norm.  The learnable, concrete skill of building empathic and trustworthy relationships is foundational in an era characterized by perpetual uncertainty and rampant skepticism.