The Decline of Trust (and What We can Do About It)
According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey conducted by the global PR consulting firm Edelman, trust in our public institutions, industries, and leaders is taking a severe beating.
This year’s survey, which polled more than 30,000 people in 26 markets around the world, found that less than one in five people believe that a business or government leader will tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue. In fact, 18 percent expect business leaders to tell the truth, while only 13 percent expect it from government officials. (See full survey results at http://www.edelman.com/news/2013-edelman-trust-barometer-finds-a-crisis-in-leadership/.)
The first response for most of us is probably, “Ho hum, tell me something new.” After all, each day seems to bring some new scandal from a respected figure in the world of business, politics, or sports. Sadly, we’ve grown so cynical that no matter how illegal or unethical the conduct, it no longer seems to faze us when the offending activity is exposed.
For example, did you really think Lance Armstrong was clean all those years? We all wanted to believe. We’re so desperate for role models these days that we hoped against hope he was not taking performance-enhancing drugs. But I think deep inside most of us knew he was lying all along.
Putting our collective cynicism aside, this pervasive lack of trust represents a leadership crisis of staggering proportions. When we don’t believe that our business and political leaders tell the truth, it sets in motion a tidal wave of negative attitudes and ways of thinking and behaving that get in the way of achieving our goals.
In the business world, the negative consequences from lack of trust are too numerous to list here. Probably the most devastating, however, is that it creates an “every man/woman for his/herself” attitude throughout the organization, especially at the lower levels. If I’m a frontline employee and I don’t believe senior management will do the right thing by me, I have no choice but to look out for myself. When I put my own agenda ahead of the organization’s, any chances of the company achieving its vision of winning go right down the drain.
What can leaders do to regain the trust they have frittered away?
Act with integrity. Develop a strong, unifying mission and vision, and constantly communicate it throughout the company. Define and clarify the organizational values that determine how people will behave internally and externally. Then live those values on a daily basis.
Communicate constantly about the decisions being made and why they’re being made, especially those that directly affect employees and how they do their jobs.
Treat people with respect. Create an environment where people are encouraged to express their opinions, and listen when they do.
Provide ongoing feedback. Let employees know what you expect from them, and tell them how they are doing on a regular basis. At the same time, develop a culture of accountability. Reward high performance and hold people accountable for improving poor performance.
And very important, keep the information flowing. In today’s social-media world, secrecy breeds suspicion. When you withhold information, people think you have something to hide. In the absence of information, they will make stuff up and fill in the gaps on their own. When you eventually tell them, if the information conflicts with what they have made up or heard from other sources, chances are they won’t believe you.
So keep employees appraised on how the business is doing overall and where you see it headed in the next one to three years. Provide regular updates on shifts in the external environment (markets, competition, regulations, etc.) and when things change, explain why you will still win. Encourage employees to ask questions, and when they do, tell the truth, divulge as much as you can – even when it hurts.
Employee skepticism and cynicism are at an all-time high, and rightfully so. But I believe we can regain the trust we need to successfully lead our organizations. The key is recognizing that we can’t demand it; we have to earn it. And that starts with doing the little things, such as telling the truth, day in and day out.
In doing so, perhaps we can set an example that will encourage our political leaders to do the same – a move that would certainly benefit us all!
Call to action: Identify one action you will take today to begin rebuilding trust with your employees.