by Chas Withers

June 23, 2023

Way back in the stone age of 2015, I wrote a blog post where I lamented the fast erosion of trust across a variety of institutions (governments, business, media) and offered some ideas on the best ways to re-establish and rebuild this vitally important relational bond. During the intervening years – in which we obviously experienced a global pandemic and continue to navigate a massive transformation that spans work, play, culture, lifestyle, geography, etc.  – I’m sorry to say that trust has continued to deteriorate rapidly. In addition, we’re seeing the largest divisional gulfs in perspective and alignment to have existed over the course of the last 100 years.

The data is potent, startling and sobering. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer:

  • Distrust of government has reached historical lows, with government leaders (across 28 participating countries) ranking the lowest out of nine affiliate sets.
  • Government and media are universally seen as primary vehicles in fueling cycles of distrust and as key sources of misleading information.
  • Key societal factors are further accelerating the lack of trust – notably, perceptions of systemic unfairness, economic pessimism, societal fears and the aforementioned issues with government and media.
  • More than 67 percent of Americans say the country is more divided today than in the past (and my non-empirical test set of friends/family/business colleagues are more like 90 percent on this topic).

If you’re looking for one outlier in this otherwise dismal picture, it resides firmly in the arena of business and employers. Two of the MOST trusted affiliate groups among the over 32,000 respondents are My CEO and My Co-Workers. And across the key organizational entities considered in the annual study, only business is growing in its ratings for competency and ethical behavior – primary elements in the establishment and ascendency of trust. This means that your organization, on a macro level, has become (or has the opportunity to become) a true safe haven for an environment rooted in collaboration and trust that stands firmly counterbalanced to an outside world cascading quickly toward mistrust, disinformation and fractured relationships.

Conceptually, this is all well and good, but why should we really care? Simply put, because trust is the purest foundation upon which relationships, businesses, institutions and even societies are built and grown. At Dix & Eaton, we’ve long invested in educating and training our team in the concept of The Trusted Advisor, a philosophy and platform for relationships developed by David Maister, and believe trust is the ultimate currency in sustaining and growing great relationships (and it applies in your personal life, too – just ask my wife). There is a wealth of data examining businesses of every size and flavor that reveals a direct correlation between high degrees of trust and ethical behavior within organizations and high performance. Trust isn’t just a nice thing to have – it’s the pure rocket fuel that turns your teams of employees and associates into performance drivers and accelerators.

And if you’re thinking that the formula for building and expanding trust with your people exists as some mysterious or intangible black box, think again. Quite to the contrary, trust comes from a consistent set of operating philosophies and principles, which are then put into practice and reinforced time and time again.

The necessary blocks for building trust:

  • Transparent Communication
    Be open, direct, clear and transparent in all communication with your people. This includes providing accurate information, openly acknowledging mistakes and promptly addressing concerns. Above all, LISTEN. Ask for feedback and input, treat your people like adults, and they’ll more than likely tell you exactly what is on their collective and individual minds. They may also ask the questions buzzing about in their minds.Being regular and consistent in updating your people and other invested stakeholders on organizational decisions, challenges and progress can engender and foster an environment of trust and minimize misinformation (and the often-destructive “whisper campaigns”). Transparent communication, done with rigor and authenticity, compounds credibility and reinforces a dedication to honesty and integrity.
  • Ethical Leadership
    Doing the right thing at all times is THE powerful instrument in elevating trust to become organizational DNA. Ethical leadership entails setting a positive example, adhering to strong moral principles, demonstrating integrity and empathy, and practicing all those elements at every level all the time. Organizational leaders need to promote a culture of fairness, equity, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability in the company – and help every person specifically understand what those tenets mean for themselves. Trust is hard-earned and won over time, but once built, it is equity in the bank that can underpin great relationships and superior performance.
  • Good Corporate Citizenry
    There is an astounding amount of data about how employees between the ages of 22 and 35 are making decisions about for whom they want to work. The current watchwords are flexibility, empowerment and belief, and the latter is rooted firmly in how organizations behave and how much they’re involved in driving not just profits, but also cultural and social change. More than ever, institutions must actively engage in meaningful sustainability initiatives, and going above and beyond to demonstrate engagement and commitment is an incredibly powerful way to build and grow trust. The most respected and effective leaders declare their priorities, back up their words with actions and fulfilment of promises and commitments, and actively solicit input and perspective from their people – and as a result, they watch trust flourish.

Instead of rehashing the notable decline of trust across society – and the larger fix, which is extraordinarily complex – it’s a great moment in time for companies and organizations to stack hands with their most important audiences to embrace, create and sustain through daily words and deeds, built brick by brick. High performance is the result of alignment, shared goals and lots of oars rowing in the same direction, and trust is the connective tissue that builds those bonds between people at every level. Trust encourages them to have each other’s back and to fulfill obligations from a place of care and dedication.

Don’t succumb to the easy bad-news mantra of “look how bad things are and how divided we are.” Instead, seize the good news, which is the opportunity to connect and energize your team and grow to new heights on a bedrock foundation grounded in trust.