The End of Trust (and how organisations can rebuild it)

We’ve seen an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the recession in 2009. Trust in government, business, media and non-profits is below 50% in two-thirds of countries, including the U.S, U.K, Germany and Japan. There has been a startling decrease in trust.  Richard Edelman


The annual Edelman Trust Barometer is always fascinating reading but the 2015 edition is one that really should make us sit up and take note.

It appears we have entered an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them. And we can’t blame those pesky bankers for this one – the causes are far more evenly spread that you might think.

It’s a truly global decline, spanning sectors and industries. The rise of connectivity and access to information, fuelled by social media,  surely play a part in this shift.

  • 60% of countries now distrust media.
  • Government is distrusted in 19 of the 27 markets surveyed.
  • Trust is strongest in non-profit organisations but even here it’s waning – alarmingly so in the case of the UK , down from 67% to 51%.

But don’t worry –  those crazy social disruptors and innovators will surely save the day.

Errr – except people don’t trust them either.

Indeed , public trust in innovation is no longer implicit.  As the report says “innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.”

51% of people say the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.

This is surely a wake up call to all of us working in Local Government, Health , Housing and Care. These are sectors that often spend an undue amount of time blaming other people for their problems. Problems , it seems , that lie somewhat closer to home.

Trustworthiness is said to consist of competence (ability), having the right motives (benevolence), and acting fairly and honestly (integrity). Any person or organisation who displays those attributes consistently will be trusted. But get any of them wrong, and you blow it. 

The impact of a trust deficit is tangible:

  • In public services a lack of trust means people not buying into services and values. If means a declining reputation, wasted resources and a sharp increase in avoidable contact and failure rates.
  • In business it hits profit , two thirds of people refuse to buy products and services from a company they do not trust, 58% will criticise them to a friend.
  • And those of us based in the UK will see the impact of the lack of trust in government on 7th May. People are increasingly disenfranchised from mainstream politics – especially, but not exclusively, the young.

So what do we need to do?

As the report says: The trust-building opportunity lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.

Obviously there are some global mega trends at work here that are difficult to shift. But what can our organisations practically do to start building up trust?

Here’s five things we could all start doing tomorrow:

Stop saying how great your organisation is

There’s a huge dissonance in the public sector where services are often described as great when they are merely mediocre.

This includes the issuing of flattering press releases , massaged customer satisfaction scores and meaningless benchmarking results. The only people who have a right to say we are great are our customers.

Everytime we say how wonderful we are a little bit of trust dies somewhere.

Start engaging rather than broadcasting

It’s time to do less talking and more listening. Cut it with the jargon and PR doublespeak.

If you want to understand why trust in politicians is flatlining you need look no further than the Twitter feed of prospective Prime Minister Ed Miliband. To say this account is robotic is a genuine insult to our android friends. The Canadian hitchhiking robot HitchBot demonstrates more insight, humour, warmth, and humanity. 

We need to start acting , and talking,  like people again.

Default to transparency

Publish everything. Even your biggest mistakes.

I frequently talk about the work of Buffer , to my mind a truly transparent organisation. Take a look at their transparency dashboard which features details of salaries, profit and loss, even their emails. They have built a business with strong social media presence and enshrined transparency as part of their values.

How honest are our websites? Maybe we should ask our customers.

Stop innovating for the sake of it

The report notes that trusted innovation means us adopting a new framework rooted in dialogue, sharing information and fostering collaboration.

We need the various Labs , Accelerators and Hubs to adopt stringent methodologies for testing innovations and proving their worth before launching them to the public.

Our Bromford Lab and Research Team have begun to show our organisation and customers that testing social innovations in a robust way is not bureaucracy – but necessary evaluation.

Rather than launching initiatives in a blaze of publicity we’d be better off making test results publicly available for review, which 80% of people say would boost trust.

Turn your people into brand advocates

People just don’t buy our marketing anymore. They don’t believe us. We need to radically transform Communications and Marketing teams. Rather than gatekeepers they need to be enablers. The more of our colleagues we have on social , the more honesty we share, the more trust we build.

I’m a big advocate of social CEOs – but the report highlights they are regarded as the least credible sources. A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy.

To prevent further decline we need to consider whether every action we take is a trust builder or trust killer.

Every action, every report, every single tweet.

To rebuild trust we must show we are worthy of it.


16 thoughts on “The End of Trust (and how organisations can rebuild it)

  1. There is an issue with leaders and comms people applying the old approaches of spin and ‘message delivery’ to emerging channels. At it worst, it alienates people.

    As for Robo tweets, I don’t believe Ed has written most of them on his feed (which highlights the old approach at work). Doesn’t just apply to social though sadly!

    1. Haha! I’m glad you posted that clip Ben. To be fair to Ed he’s certainly not the only example, but as someone who supposedly wants to end institutional distrust he certainly needs a better team of advisors.

      You’re right – it’s not just politics but people prioritising ‘message delivery’ over engagement. The Edelman report should bring that home to people.

      Thanks again for commenting

  2. Some good points Pail. My Mam had a saying. “I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him” So lack of trust isn’t new. I have always believed that you should start out by trusting people unless they do something to counter this view. If you genuinely do what you say you are going to do and live your values people will generally trust you. And if they don’t just keep on being true to yourself and keep looking in the mirror.

  3. Thanks Tom – and I agree that lack of trust isn’t new but the scale of the drop is significant ( for UK non-profits 16% in a year!). Perhaps in the past people had more automatic respect for institutions whereas now trust has to be earned?

    You’re right though – living values and time after time reliability has a lot going for it.

  4. Really enjoyable post. Worrying trend especially against the backdrop of budget reductions and flux in local government. I like the ‘solutions’ but they require leadership and bravery to implement but therein may be the problem.

    1. Very true Mark – this is a time for bravery and leadership (brave leadership!) – and I hope we see more organisations taking up the challenge.

  5. Lets apply this theory then to social housing.

    Welfare Reform has driven a wedge between tenant and landlord – though landlords only admit this and 100% admit this in private – and while social housing has always looked at risk in terms of risk to tenancy, risk to neighbourhood, risk to arrears and many other areas, the overwhelming majority of social landlords have never looked at risk to (their) reputation and not from the perception of the social tenant if they have.

    ‘Social’ landlords were pre welfare reform perceived as standing behind their tenants and their tenants needs (and yes not the possessive use of THEIR by landlords too – Yet come the bedroom tax and landlords bombard tenants with red-inked letters, email, text messages and doorstepping (or even drones delivering pigeon post Paul?)

    Tenants now perceive allegedly social landlords in a far more negative light – they only want the rent and couldn’t care about us and similar phrases abound…..Just as direct payments in UC is about to see tenants take control of the payment of rent!

    Yes – incredibly near-sighted policy from finance directors of social landlords as tenants once they start receiving direct payment of HB WILL de-prioritise such payments and because of their more negative perceptions of social landlords.

    You dont need some guru or doctrine or latest publication with snake oil headlines of “the end of Trust” to see this – Just an ounce of common and business sense which we see social landlords did not have by their actions in red ink bombardment of their (ahem) customers!

  6. Thanks Joe – Housing not an island on this one – decline is part of a wider malaise. It would be very interesting though to get this mapped for the housing sector..

  7. As a journalist and co-owner of a smallish newspaper, I can attest to the necessity of those pillars of trust you mentioned: competence, transparency, etc. Too many professionals in my industry ignored their true reason for existing and instead focused on vapid, though attention-grabbing, headlines while trading trust for ad dollars from sponsors who leverage coverage and artificially influence a narrative. And now, as you aptly stated, nobody trusts anybody. Great piece. Thanks for sharing it.

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