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

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.

Redefining Trust In A Digital Age

Trust is not coming back. Scepticism reigns, as it should. – Gerry McGovern

Since the industrial revolution,  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.”

I’m not a smoker, but I’m told that if you really want to get a view of what’s happening in an organisation you don’t look at the intranet. You go to the smoking shelter.  There hierarchy has no place. You get the real story behind the corporate version, and you get the stories that the corporate machine hasn’t yet realised are happening.

In 2017 we all have our version of the smoking shelter. Our news and gossip travels through the likes of Twitter and the backchannels of its direct messaging system. It thrives through end-to-end encrypted chats on WhatsApp and in peer-to-peer customer exchanges on our Facebook pages.

Institutional trust isn’t designed for the digital age. No government , never mind a single organisation, can control it. The official source is now secondary.

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Over the past 17 years the Edelman Trust Barometer has surveyed tens of thousands of people about their level of trust in the sectors of business, media, government, and non-profits. This year was the first time the study found a decline in trust across all four.

It comes at a time of staggering lack of confidence in leadership: 71% of respondents said government officials are not at all or somewhat credible. 63% said the same about CEOs.

In a world where 76% of people trust leaked information over a press release, we have to rethink what trust means in a digital age.

As part of design work we are doing at Bromford – we’re beginning to redefine what we mean by organisational trust in both a colleague and customer context.

It’s easiest to think about trust in a personal relationship like marriage or a partnership. It’s built through four things:

  • A shared agreement on values, goals or ambitions
  • The behaviour that supports that agreement
  • An understanding of the implications and consequences of breaking it
  • Continued openness and honesty

Applying this to our relationship with organisations is subtly different.

We 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.

However, the digital age is disrupting the accepted rules of trust. No longer is a relationship solely between citizen and institution. What was once a fairly simple one to one relationship – with information limited to them directly – is now placed within a much wider context.

The network effect of technology has created a way for people to share experiences more quickly, and to more people with more detailed information than ever before.

The challenge for organisations is not for them to try to rebuild trust but to leverage the power of these new networks to do it for them. 

It 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 as your ambassadors rather than just the CEO.

Trust now lies in the hands of individuals, not in our organisations.

 

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

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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.

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