From Vertical Hierarchy To Horizontal Networks: Trust Has Gone Local

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of mistrust and misinformation.

However, beyond the headlines there are some exciting possibilities for community led innovation.

For over 20 years, Edelman has attempted to track the progress, or decline, of trust across 28 countries.

After a year of disaster and economic turbulence – the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. 

A lot of this is pretty bleak reading, as you might expect. No-one emerges particularly well, with the UK languishing in the relegation places of the league of distrust.

However, there are many positives if you read beyond the headlines. Business is more trusted than Government in 21 countries and is the only institution to be considered both competent and ethical (Government and Media are viewed as neither). Edelman credit this boost to the rapid vaccine distribution and the pivot to new ways of working. These businesses, large and small, that have kept us going over the past year are now reaping the rewards.

Interestingly the study finds that the public considers social institutions – those who operate for ‘social good’ – to be ethical, but less competent. Saying you do good is never enough – you need to be effective to be granted trust.  Indeed , trust has two distinct attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behavior (doing the right thing and working to improve society).

The most interesting finding in this years report , which arguably builds upon a trend identified in the last three years of research, is a further reordering of trust to more local sources.

People have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.

“Trust has actually gone local,” Edelman says. “Business is the most trusted institution, but ‘my employer’ and ‘my employer CEO’ and even ‘my employer publication’ — newsletter — is more trusted than media.” Whoever would have thought that company comms teams could end up being more trusted than the mainstream media? This shift is exciting, but places enormous responsibility on CEOs and their senior leaders.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that a sudden pivot to local living, working and thinking has had this effect. In a crisis, people take in, process, and act on information differently than they would during normal times.

Under intense stress and overload, we tend to miss the nuances of messages by not fully hearing information because of our inability to juggle multiple facts or not remembering as much of the information as we normally could. We also tend to focus more on the things immediately within our control – and that includes our closest relationships. Community offers people something that Government or media cannot – a sense of belonging in an insecure world.

Of course , communities now include non-place based groups such as online forums, which may not always convey news in a positive way.

As our relationships at work, with peers, with teams, and with our CEOs become more important, it seems like a time for us to rethink how we move information around the organisation and build valuable relationships that are more horizontal, more local.

Just as trust has gradually been shifting from a top-down orientation to a horizontal one, this has now gone a step further – people are turning to that which is close, local, and personal. 69% said they trust “people in my local community”.  

It would be easy to see this move to local trust as a responsibility for leaders, but in reality it’s anything but.

Yes, leaders need to shift from a hierarchical command and control model but equally we all have a role building trust at a local level.

  • If you’re sharing misinformation or scare stories on Facebook, you’re not building trust.
  • If you’re hanging around in social groups that are feeding negative thinking, you’re not building trust
  • If you’re adopting partisan views and not willing to shift your viewpoint, you’re not building trust.

We are at an inflection point where there is clearly an urgent need to look at how we communicate at the same time as a burgeoning desire from the public for business and community to work together to solve problems rather than just wait for Government.

Some of the themes we’ve discussed for some years on this blog, with my network, and many others – are now cohering. Covid-19 has accelerated everything, not just vaccine development.

Healthcare, poverty, climate change, societal inequalities, are often things we see as other people’s problems but as Edelman say – this is the time for institutions, leaders, citizens to work together, laying the groundwork for a new era of trust.

When trust is local, every interaction we have with our family, our colleagues or our community is a potential trust builder or killer.


Images in this post are from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer

Enabling A New World Of Public Service Delivery

The UK now finds itself in its lowest-ever position in the Global Trust Index, just one place off the bottom, with only Russia below it – Ed Williams President and CEO, EMEA

The results are in: Nobody trusts anyone anymore.

The 2020 update of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which aims to survey trust and credibility around the world, reveals that we are living in a ‘trust paradox’.  We have almost reached full employment with more people lifted out of poverty than ever before. And yet – globally –  no institution, be they government, business, non-profit or media— are trusted.

There’s also a lack of faith that the government can address our problems. Sixty six percent of respondents said they do not have confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.”

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Institutions are variously described as remote, too slow. Too bureaucratic. Not agile enough.

However , there is hope.

75% of people want to see much greater collaboration from institutions, with each other and involving citizens. Indeed, across the board, collaboration is key to regaining trust. Partnering with other institutions to solve complex issues is one of the most important steps to regaining people’s trust.

Many more people place their trust in experts and local communities.  80% of respondents said they trust scientists, 69% said they trust “people in my local community” and 65% said they trust “citizens of my country.”

When nearly 70% of people trust others in their community and want to see greater collaboration from civic institutions, you have something positive to build from.

Yesterday I was in Cardiff with Wales Audit talking about the opportunities and challenges for accelerating innovation across the public and private sector.

These kind of debates about how organisations can move from the old world to the new are increasingly vital if we are to do anything about a trust deficit.

The excellent sketchnote in the header (thanks Chris Bolton! AKA @whatsthepont) nails the key behavioural shifts that organisations need to make to become ready for an era of equal partnerships rather than one based upon command and control.

  • A shift from targets and sanctions to supportive coaching
  • A shift from compliance and rules towards continual learning and improved outcomes
  • A move from hierarchy to partnerships through networks and collaborations
  • A move from broadcasting and controlling the message to conversations across trusted networks
  • And a seismic shift in transparency about failure – a move to a test and learn culture

As Chris said – we’d be naive to think this is going to happen overnight – and it’s a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Sometimes you DO need sanctions and you need a hierarchy.

That said, and as the Edleman report lays bare, incrementalism is no longer enough. People are looking for big bold change to deliver a discernible improvement in their lives.

More than ever people need to feel that organisations are competent and have the ability to fulfill their commitments. We need to believe they have the right motives, are benevolent, act fairly and honestly. We need to see they are transparent, that they are learning from mistakes and failure.

Enabling this new world of service delivery means shifting from ‘what matters to us’ towards ‘what matters to you’ . This requires quite a profound behaviour change from our organisations.

It means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality. It means doing less talking and more listening. It means stopping saying how great your organisation is. It means engaging rather than broadcasting. It means defaulting to transparency. It means partnering.

The first step to regaining trust is to believe in someone or something. Perhaps that’s a good place to start for many of our organisations.

  • Do people believe we are benevolent?
  • Do people believe we are even competent?
  • Do people believe we even understand the problem we were set up to fix?

Distrust will only be combatted through leaders being open and accountable and having public discourse with one another and with the people they collectively serve.

Concern about disinformation will only be combated by providing real evidence of the kind of outcomes we are achieving. It’s time to kill it with the awards for ourselves.

The real positive here is that people aren’t sick of change, they want change on a scale like never before.

Whether we are capable of delivering it, or whether we are even prepared to, remains to be seen.

Rebuilding Trust Requires Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Difficult conversations, the ones which we all too often shy away from, are the very thing that help build trust in one another.

For instance, if you want to spot a couple who are on the verge of splitting up, look for the ones who have stopped talking and are sitting in silence. The ones having a public argument over lunch still have a dialogue. Couples who argue effectively are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who sweep difficult issues under the carpet.

For years, our organisations and institutions have swept difficult issues under the carpet rather than having adult to adult conversations. The results are there for all to see.

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The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year—people have shifted their trust to the relationships immediately within their control as we become more intolerant and disillusioned.

The world though is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them.

In conjunction with this pessimism and worry, there is a growing move toward engagement and action.

This is hugely positive, although disruptive. The trust-building opportunity then lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.

In the old days a trusting relationship between individuals and organisations has been the norm.

This has shaped the way we communicate – both internally and externally. It has resulted in the issuing of corporate annual reports, press releases , customer satisfaction scores and benchmarking results. All designed to tell a positive, on-message story.

Those days have gone.

As Gerry McGovern writes – the game has profoundly changed. “Many organisations are still deluding themselves into thinking that if they can just get their marketing and PR right, they can control the message, control the future.

My last couple of posts drew on the need to escape siloed bubbles and embark on different relationships.

The reaction to the latter, on Twitter in particular, highlighted the lack of trust in many of our organisations.  There is clearly a need for a different and potentially difficult conversation, and it won’t be easy.

On Saturday my Twitter feed was buzzing, and it wasn’t all positive. A few people were taking me to task for having double standards.

The problem I imagine, is I’m a ‘paid professional’ working within a flawed system. A flawed system I myself have perpetuated at times. How can I possibly help fix it if I’m rewarded by it?  I could be – as one person noted – the problem rather than the solution.

This view is not entirely without foundation. Social networks might appear to be more democratic , but in any conversation there’s often a power imbalance, and we’ve seen precious little evidence of any organisations giving up any power or resources.

A lot of people are disillusioned because they feel they could probably do a better job than those in power. Social media has revealed where the power is held, and how it behaves.  Why shouldn’t we as social organisations cede power in a situation where so many clearly crave it?

Perhaps it’s because trust works both ways, and our organisations don’t trust citizens, users or customers to wield power responsibly. How would they know how to make the right choices?

It’ll take more than a few tweet-chats or a transformation programme to restore trust that has been eroded over decades. Digital is not the saviour we thought it might be. There’s a need for genuine human connection as a resistance to today’s deadening, tech-obsessed world.

That doesn’t meant we shouldn’t try to improve our online conversations though, we need to develop broader shoulders if we are to break this down. I’ve heard too many stories of people being muted or even blocked by organisations whom they are customers of.

It also means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality:

That means it’s time to do less talking and more listening. 

It means stopping saying how great your organisation is.

It means engaging rather than broadcasting.

It means defaulting to transparency.

It means people engaging in difficult conversations. 

We all have a role in diffusing some of the anger out there. That means getting better at discussing ideas and finding common ground.

Today, more than ever, we need to start talking more. Listening to voices we’d sometimes prefer not to hear.

The Number 1 Priority For Your CEO: Building Trust

Silence is now deeply dangerous—a tax on truth – Richard Edelman

Trust is the most valuable commodity in your organisation – although it’s probably not something you talk about often, much less attempt to measure.

For the past 16 years, Edelman has attempted to track the progress, or decline, of trust across 28 countries.

The latest results of their Trust Barometer shows we live in an era of misinformation – which has profound implications for our organisations and communities.

Globally, nearly seven in 10 respondents among the general population worry about fake news or false information, 59% say that it is getting harder to tell if a piece of news comes from a credible source.

Tellingly only 24% of the UK trust Twitter, Facebook and Instagram when looking for news and information.

The credibility of  “a person like yourself” is at an all-time low. The great hope we had for social media as a democratising force for good – unleashing waves of citizen journalists – appears to be over.

This all sounds bleak, but actually, there’s a new hope. 

In an era of trust stagnation, there’s a new opportunity for leaders emerging. People have a renewed faith in credible voices of authority.

A few years ago there was a big drive to get CEOs on social media. With hindsight that was naive – we bear witness every single day to the disastrous consequences of leaders and politicians equipped with Twitter accounts.

The real drive should be to ensure our CEOs and leaders emerge as trusted credible sources of information.

7 in 10 respondents say that building trust is the No. 1 priority for CEOs, ahead of high-quality products and services.

Nearly two-thirds of people say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government, which now ranks significantly below business in trust in most markets.

Building trust as a priority over delivering services? That’s a sit up and take notice moment.

Making this shift means a radical overhaul of how we currently view communication. Most organisations are still deluding themselves into thinking that if they can just get their marketing and PR right they can control the brand message.

Tell a good story. Issue flattering reports and PR pieces. Show you are nice people. Only engage with those who are positive about your organisation.

Demonstrably, this isn’t working. We are haemorrhaging trust.

Over the past week, I’ve been involved in a quite a few debates with leaders and the people we serve. Some of the conversations – and the disconnections they highlight – demonstrate exactly the themes that Edelman are tracking on a global scale.

Feelings of powerlessness, of not being listened to, of organisations that were designed to improve social outcomes becoming distant and ever more corporate.

I’ve certainly reflected on my own communications and why people sometimes don’t trust my organisation. Why they sometimes don’t trust me.

  • Distrust will only be combatted through leaders being open and accountable and having public discourse with one another and with the people they collectively serve.
  • Concern about disinformation will only be combatted by providing real evidence of the kind of outcomes we are achieving. It’s time to kill it with the awards for ourselves.

The digital age has disrupted the accepted rules of trust. No longer is a relationship solely between citizen and institution. What was once a binary one to one relationship behind closed doors is now conducted in public in a much broader social context.

Silence is dangerous.

Social media hasn’t shifted the balance of power — but it’s certainly shining a light on where power is held and how it behaves.

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