How To Lose Trust During Complex Times

Remember the good old days of the early lockdown?

A time of communities discovering or rediscovering vital social connections.

A new found appreciation for public institutions and the people who keep our local shops and services running.

A sense of going to back to basics and spending more time on the relationships that truly matter.

The initial stages of the pandemic seemed to disprove all the reports of the decline of trust. On the contrary , we showed remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We calmly listened to the experts, followed their advice and changed our lives beyond recognition.

Fast forward just 26 weeks and we are facing a very different outlook. Arguably we have never looked so fractured as a nation. It seems that the government, and indeed the opposition, has substantially squandered the trust people were willing to grant it in the early days of the pandemic.

Whatever your political view – any era in which mingling and talking to friends and neighbours is illegal and where reporting people to the police is actively encouraged , is corrosive for sustaining strong communities and sets the stage for a low trust, toxic environment.

What can our institutions learn from this if we are to avoid the same mistakes?

Losing trust in an institution (or an individual) stems from betrayal: When we feel lied to, or taken advantage of, trust evaporates almost overnight.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that institutions can have a social purpose and transcend individuals by creating norms and rules that people can count on. Basically, institutions are the building blocks of society. If we lose trust in an institution, dysfunction will follow until that institution is replaced by something else that can govern our behaviour and make life predictable again.

Right now – life is far from predictable, people don’t have norms they can count upon and the rules change on a regular basis with little advance notice. People are looking for a simple, believable message.

In the early days of the pandemic the message was simple and believable. People understood what the stakes were and the rules – though draconian – were perfectly clear. The story stuck in people’s heads and we complied – almost universally.

In recent weeks the compelling story has been dropped in favour of less than compelling statistics.

The already infamous graph of doom , used to illustrate a potential scenario if the coronavirus proceeds unchecked ( a failure to act = 50,000 cases a day by mid-October) – made a fatal mistake. The story became about the data and nothing else.

Stories about data are never interesting or believable unless you are deeply unusual. Data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

Great stories help us to persuade people to take action. Stories about data persuade people to argue about the data.

Fortunately, both science and history show us how we can get trust back once more.

Trust is built through engagement and integrity – listening, providing information, being transparent and following through on your promises. Admitting you don’t have all the answers – far from making you look indecisive – makes you believable and attracts people to your cause.

Let’s Kill Leadership

For some reason we seem incapable of engendering a style of leadership where you can say ‘I don’t know’.

In complex and uncertain environments, hierarchical models of command and control simply stop working.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively. We can choose to make lots of small decisions owned by the crowd rather than massively big ones owned by a single leader.

Believability is built by saying “I don’t know what the solution really is but this is what I think and this is what I’ll try, and I really think we should all give this a go. Are you with me?”

Pretending to have answers when you clearly have none fools no-one.

How to build trust?

Tell stories: good ones.

Tell stories: true ones. 


Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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