Underlying societal issues that have long been simmering below the surface are raising questions and imperatives that will last long after the pandemic ends. The implicit social contract between institutions and stakeholders is rightfully being questioned. Individuals are frustrated; many don’t believe they are being heard by their leaders in government or by corporate institutions—or being treated fairly and equally.
As recent research indicates, these trends were already latent, and simply accelerated by COVID-19. For example, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 77% of US respondents (as of February) strongly or partially agree that large companies have been guilty of making a quick profit; the May 2020 update indicates that just 38% of global respondents believe that business is “doing well or very well” at putting people before profits. Further, millennials’ belief that business is “a force for good” continues to decline: just 51% of millennials say business is a force for good, a steep drop from 76% three years ago. Amid the pandemic, only 41% of millennials feel that business is making a positive societal impact globally.
Therefore, re-establishing trust is even more critical now. Far from being a static, unchanging force, trust is dynamic and flows in multiple directions. The characteristics of being trusting and being trustworthy require us to make choices to invest in relationships that result in mutual value. Trust is a tangible exchange of value, it is actionable and human across many dimensions. Let’s examine how we can invest in, rebuild, and renew trust.
Trust is personal: A call for leaders
In the words of British writer George Eliot, “Those who trust us educate us.” Truly building trust with our stakeholders—understanding their concerns and their priorities—involves a willingness to listen, to learn, and to hear. Building trust requires leaders to make conscious daily choices, and especially to act on those choices …
… Through mutual trust. When we as leaders trust our stakeholders, we enter an exchange that engenders opportunity: We prove our trustworthiness, and stakeholders empower our strategic choices and innovations. In essence, mutual trust creates a followership that allows us to break new ground, to traverse the seismic changes taking place and emerge, thriving, on the other side of crisis.
… With vulnerability and honesty. Business leaders who are willing to acknowledge what they don’t know are more likely to create trust with their stakeholders than those leaders who mistakenly believe their greatest source of influence is knowledge—or at least acting as though they know. A similar paradox exists for organizations responding to a one-time breach of trust. Stakeholders are likely to regain—and even strengthen—trust in the organization when leaders admit the mistake, are apologetic, and are transparent in how they move forward.
… Authentically, and where it matters most to your stakeholders. Intent connects the leader to their humanity and the importance of acting with transparency. But at the end of the day, intent is just a promise; leaders must be able to act on that promise, and do so competently, reliably, and capably. And they must be able to do so in the areas—whether physical, emotional, digital, or financial—that matter most to their stakeholders at that given time.
… By connecting as humans. Leaders who aspire to be trusted by their stakeholders take responsible actions that consider and, where possible, acknowledge the needs of each of those stakeholders. This requires an understanding of what is important to different stakeholders, and an ability to walk alongside them rather than an attempt to “walk in their shoes.”
If our efforts lead us back to where we were before the events of 2020, then we have failed. Our goal is not to return to the old normal, but to co-create a better normal. Trust is the foundation for that better future because it enables stakeholders to believe in the organization and its mission, its competence to succeed, and its intent to do good – and concurrently holds us as leaders accountable for our commitments.
Asking ourselves difficult questions will enable us to plot a path forward, to organize and prioritize our next steps around trust, and to operationalize it within our organization and across our stakeholders. Even when difficult choices must be made, trusted leaders and organizations have amassed the currency—and the courage—to make and stand behind those decisions with conviction and integrity.