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Trust 101

Like "integrity," "trust" is a commonly appreciated yet rarely defined with the rigor to make it an operational asset. To grow trust, or to be responsible to it, requires strategic dialogue and insight.

1. Research Highlights

On a staggering scale, eight out of ten research participants believe strongly that trust is in decline throughout society.

An immediate consequence of this growing mistrust is disconnection, a sense that we are too busy - responding to pressures that force us more and more to look after ourselves – to engage with others.

Greed is generally regarded as the most disturbing motivator and consequence of this social trend and is assumed to be the motivation for many of the scandals that have plagued public and private sectors.

Always a risk, there is a sense that greed is now more pernicious for being normalized, for having “many names” including “stock options,” “shareholder value,” and “competitive advantage.”

While high profile transgressions of the public good have confirmed the validity of suspicion, these surprisingly are not the root causes for mistrust. For the most part, the depletion of trust has been by a “thousand cuts” over the course of a decade characterized by “lean and mean” restructuring in government, within corporations, in the economy and society at large.

The most important factor in creating or sustaining trust is reliability, including assurance of performance, quality and value. It is exactly on these dimensions of everyday expectation that trust has been most frayed, as services and commitments have become unpredictable, inaccessible or disrespectful.

While measured empirically, trust is as much emotional as rational, involving comfort as well as confirmation, and the experience of dignity as well as tangible proof. Suspicion has been aroused because people feel less welcomed, less respected and less valued in interactions with institutions.

2. Trust Factors

Trust is grown or lost in relationship, and the slow bleeding has occurred on the intimate human scale often neglected in the focus on big issues such as globalization, competitiveness and the new economy. These personal-level injuries or betrayals include:

  • The loss of voice in discourse or decision-making, deepening alienation.
  • A gnawing sense of public impotence in that the problems of society (healthcare) or communities (homelessness) seem beyond anyone’s capacity to address effectively.
  • A carelessness (care/less) in the way restructuring has been implemented or successes shared, confirming the sensibility that people do not matter and everyone is in it only for him or herself.
  • Dehumanization from new technology, especially as it downloads service or problems onto customers or citizens, or channels them like cattle in frustrating systems like auto-attendant phone answering.
  • Fatigue with change, particularly as few of the promised benefits from past renewal or restructuring efforts have been realized or shared.
  • Frustration with complexity, especially with the technical jargon of experts and specialists that hampers accessibility and participation.
  •  A belief that cost or economic considerations are now so dominant as to exclude other voices or interests for investment in the public good.

Disrespect in any interaction feeds mistrust. The public and corporate push on efficiency has very often delivered productivity at the expense of deliberate, respectful and responsive interaction.

Beyond relationship, there is also an important spatial aspect to trust-making. The degradation of public space – from corporate names on hockey shrines to rusty guard-rails on roadways – distorts the environment for engagement, diminishing co-ownership, pride-of-belonging and security.

Mistrust is most particularly an indictment of broken or ineffective leadership in all sectors, including business, politics, religion and culture. The two factors that have defeated the public trust or amplified public suspicion towards leaders are the failure to articulate a compelling and viable vision, and an almost complete evasion of accountability.

3. Operational Costs of Wasted Trust

Not at all a “soft asset,” trust is an equity with real value to the bottom-line of organizations. It has a profound impact on reputation, efficiency and innovation. And it provides real leverage for taking risks, recovering from mistakes, or attracting the right talent or strategic partners. With suspicion growing in virtually all sectors it is possible to construct a “balance sheet” for the implications and costs:

4. Trust Implications

That leaders do not do what they say is not new. Beyond broken promises, people feel that leaders in all spheres are too removed from the human and social impacts of their policies and decisions.

The trust drain in society and for many organizations is caused by a widening rift between people with power and the publics they are meant to be responsible for. While public and private sector leaders acknowledge that society’s increasing suspiciousness is problematic, they tend to regard trust with much less priority and urgency than average citizens or customers.

Exacerbating this gap is the sense that all public discourse is now an exercise in marketing, intending not so much dialogue as persuasion, seeking not so much resolution as perceptions of progress. Trust has fallen as truth has become more opaque or has been used ping-pong in a competition of selling strategies.

It is not surprising that people crave leadership, but this disenfranchisement speaks to a more elemental cry for sensitivity, for being seen and heard as human beings, and relating authentically to those entrusted with the public good.

Adjusting to this reality, people are shifting their expectations to the degree that “high trusting” societies increasingly behave as “low trusting.” While a majority still begin encounters extending trust, a growing number – more than four in ten - now operate with automatic suspicion, expecting the worse and extending trust only as warranted or earned.

People remain “cynically hopeful” that things will improve, that leaders and institutions will re-earn the public trust. This points to a double paradox in which the public is more concerned about the dilapidation of trust than its leaders, and yet also more hopeful than leaders that things can get better. 

5. Trust Inhibitors & Contributors

Trust is essential yet invisible, a value that is moral as well as relational, discerned by both reason and emotion, operating on the large scale of history within the movements of human society, and on the small scale of our most important and intimate relationships of love and friendship. Trust is an economic variable affecting investment and bottom-line performance, and a personal variable defining character and reputation. The whole complex web of society and culture rests on trust, and indeed any society or culture is directly shaped by its beliefs, assumptions and expectations regarding the push-pull between trust and suspicion. CEO's findings suggest not only the state of trust – which is deteriorating – but also reference points for understanding how we got to where we are, and what it means to where we are going.

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