How low can we go?

The recently-released 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer documented a record-breaking one-year drop in trust in institutions in the United States.

If you’ve been following the national news this past year, you won’t be shocked that the government’s scores “led” the collapse of trust with a decline from 47 to 33 percent in one year.

The other institutions that Edelman measures—business, media, and NGOs (non-government organizations)—also experienced declines of 10 to 20 points in the U.S.

“The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse,” according to Edelman’s president and CEO, Richard Edelman. Unlike past years, 2017 was a year in which the United States experienced strong economic performance. The stock market hit record highs and unemployment was low.

The turmoil in other areas and the polarizing exchanges about them, such as the extreme weather, the mass shootings, the #metoo movement,  concerns about nuclear confrontation with North Korea,  America’s isolation from the rest of the world, and the bashing of the media as inaccurate and biased, took a toll on trust levels.

This year also marked a distinct difference in changes in trust levels among countries. Since Edelman started its Trust Barometer in 2000, trust levels by country tended to move in lockstep. For the first time, 2018 showed a dramatic increase in trust for six nations, and a decline in six other countries of the 28 countries surveyed.

China experienced 27-point gains overall to garner the top position on the Trust Index, followed by India, Indonesia, UAE, and Singapore. By contrast, the U.S. dropped from sixth place in 2017 to last in 2018.

The decline is affecting businesses headquartered in the U.S. too. In the last year, trust in companies headquartered in the U.S. now stands at 50 percent, down five points from last year and down from 61 percent in 2014, just four years ago. (By comparison,  companies headquartered in Canada enjoy a 68 percent trust score and Switzerland has a 67 percent trust score this year.)

While the “Brand USA” is tarnished from a trust perspective, all is not totally bleak for US businesses and for that matter, businesses across the globe.  

CEO credibility rose swiftly this year by seven points to 44 percent, thanks to a number of high-profile CEOs speaking out on issues important to them. And about two-thirds of respondents said they want CEOs to take the lead on talking about and moving forward on policy change instead of waiting for government.

Even more positive, 72 percent of respondents said they trust their own employer. And that trust extends to other areas. For example, 64% said they believe “a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”

With improved scores come increased responsibilities for CEOs. The number one job for CEOs is now building trust at 69 percent, just one point above producing high-quality products and services.

Yet, this CEOs trust-building role is notable, especially when viewed in light of another change this year. Authority figures, such as CEOs, and experts, including technical experts, academics, and journalists, all saw their trust levels grow. By contrast, the credibility of peers—described as a “person like yourself” dropped six points to an all-time low of 54 percent. (In 2017, peers, technical experts, and academics shared the highest trust ratings.)

What does the CEOs  trust-building role look like?

CEOs and other leaders need to take these three broad trust-building actions.

  1. Speak up on issues that you, employees, and other key stakeholders care about, especially as they connect to your business and your industry. As Richard Edelman states, inertia and silence are not options. “Silence is now deeply dangerous—a tax on truth.” CEOs don’t have to become activist CEOs like Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com or Tim Cook of Apple, but they and others, including you, need to demonstrate they have the courage of their convictions and are amplifying the voices of their stakeholders.
  1. Be clear, sincere, and authentic in your speaking and writing. Use everyday language in simple sentence structures. Also, use first person pronouns, especially “we” to show that you’re taking responsibility and you’re being inclusiveness. Tell personal stories, especially when people might not expect them. For instance, after the White House called for ESPN’s Jemele Hill to be fired for one of her tweets about Donald Trump, Disney CEO Bob Iger explained on stage at a Vanity Fair event that “It’s hard for me to understand what it feels like to experience racism,” he added. “I felt we needed to take into account what other people at ESPN were feeling at this time and that resulted in us not taking action.”
  1. Help employees and others distinguish facts from opinions and falsehoods. As the Edelman report describes, the “loss of confidence in information challenges is the fourth wave of the trust tsunami” that the world has experienced in recent years. This year’s Trust Index shows that 63 percent of the U.S. general population found it difficult to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake, and to decide who and what to believe. Leaders need to lead by example. This means presenting facts accurately, and explaining how you’re interpreting them. (Many people consider facts and truth to be the same, which they aren’t. Check out this blog post How to line up your facts and truths.)

By taking these actions and others in a thoughtful, consistent and persistent manner, CEOs and other leaders can start rebuilding trust. Trust serves as both the glue and lubricant in organizations. When individuals trust one another, they can work faster with less friction and rework both internally and externally. They can be more creative. And they can help one another get more done.

What are you doing to ensure you’re building not busting trust?

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