2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 42: How Do You Trust?

Aligning Trust

Everyone is talking about who or what to trust, particularly in today’s fractious public discourse. When we decide to trust, we have aligned with and formed an understanding, correlation, and interpretation of the meaning of that trust. We then apply what has been communicated, shared, and internalized to our own beliefs, values, and knowledge … and take actions based on that trust.

In Ourselves We Trust

Where do we end up if we have formed thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and take actions only to discover our trust was misaligned? We feel violated, we question ourselves and second guess how we could have trusted in the first place. What did we do wrong in our evaluation and assessment of the trust we aligned with to another, an organization, or even a government?

It gets more complicated. If we don’t trust ourselves, we typically don’t trust others. You can also flip the equation and by trusting others we can trust ourselves. This bi-directional connection aids us in forming our perception of reality. We wrote a few weeks ago about how reality is really perception. So, if we trust what we have been told and trust it has some correlation to the fact, then we indeed perceive a feeling of trust.

How We Trust

But the real question is how you trust, and that doesn’t mean that you can or are able to trust. Rather, what is the process of how you trust, even in trusting yourself? Consider the seminal work, How Does a Poem Mean and take a page from John Ciardi to think about how you trust as the analysis of all the independent elements that comprise your decision to trust. In literature, it’s breaking poems down to study their structure, form, language, and theme. Let’s apply those meta principles in analyzing how you trust — professionally and personally. Here are the key elements:

  • The source
  • Your relationship/history with the source
  • Your values align with the source
  • Your own inherent biases (positive and negative)
  • Your yearnings to want to trust the source

How you trust should be for the right reasons, which can be clarified by holistically considering these key elements. Basically, this boils down to asking the right questions. Critical thinking is a fundamental tool in revealing how you come to trust and in how you trust. This discipline deconstructs the entire trust process and will make you more honest, and well, trustworthy. It is also the same process that organizations can use to clarify how their customers trust them as well as how their employees share their trust.

In applying critical thinking to what you are reading, hearing, or viewing as a receiver, you are ingesting what the communicator is putting forward. You then interpret that information based on your own experience, knowledge, and values. The interpretation may not be objective as it is often flavored with your own biases. The trick is to take a step back, use your critical thinking skills to look at all sides of what is being put forward. Apply the key elements while also recognizing what you know, don’t know and the gaps you need to fill before you can trust. One must attain a level of confidence to trust and be trusted.

Trust: Worthy?

Trust is based, then, on confidence. Trust is transparent. Trust provides security. And trust is a precious currency. Today many people find trust as elusive, disappointing, ambiguous, and a betrayal when it is revealed the trust given was misaligned. Next gens’ trust in institutions is at an all-time low, exacerbated by the politicization of everything from mask protocols and women’s rights to voting policies and the climate crisis. The media is polarizing. Science (even documented with facts) isn’t trusted. Schools are banning books. Respected CEOs are being fired for unethical behavior. And it’s tempting to dismiss any hope for truth and trust on social media, which is drowning in disinformation.

Even when presented with empirical data, some people do not trust the facts. Covid is a case in point. Ezra Klein writes in The New York Times, quoting Thomas Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, “When confronted with a novel, contagious virus the best way for governments to protect their citizens is to convince them to take the measures to protect themselves. Especially in free societies, the success of that effort depends on trust — trust between citizens and their government and trusts between citizens themselves.” He adds, “Policy lies downstream of society. Mandates are not self-executing; to work, policies need to be followed, guidance needs to be believed. Public health is rooted in the soil of trust. That soil has thinned in America.”

Pandemic aside, which has been a lightning rod of polarization, what is going on here? How do we navigate a low-trust, high-dysfunction society? How do we run organizations that can make the required effort to reconnect with mistrustful customers? How do we avoid experiencing bankruptcy with stakeholders’ trust?

The Cycle of Distrust

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer is focused on The Cycle of Distrust, which threatens any society’s stability. On the surface, this report doesn’t sound very optimistic. The report reveals that distrust in government and media has grown. In fact, media and government are seen as divisive, and 74% of the survey respondents worry about media and government using false information or fake news as a weapon. When it comes to being lied to and purposely misled, 67% of respondents believe journalists and reporters are guilty and 66% believe the same about government leaders. Furthermore, 64% agree that people in their own country lack the ability to have constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on. These public sentiments do not bode well for the public discourse and functional society. Although it’s easy to dismiss these statistics as existential, abstract or someone else’s problem, it deeply affects the psyches and emotional health of all your stakeholders. It is worth the investment and time to explore and identify how customers and employees trust you and your organization. And how you trust yourselves.

Restoring Trust

The better news in Edelman’s research is that business is considered to be the only trusted institution. The societal role of business is here to stay, and people want more business leadership, not less. In fact, the study reports that people believe business leaders can restore belief in society’s ability to build a better future.

We must honestly ask if the business is the great hope for building back a broken society. And if the answer is yes, we need to be sure we are saying that we are no longer capable of creating productive, trust-based relationships with governments and institutions to have a productive public discourse. Have we then shucked our own individual contributions and responsibilities?

Restoring trust is key to societal stability. People’s trust in their co-workers has risen 12 points. The bad news is that we are as quick to trust as we are to distrust. Our inherent biases influence our kneejerk trigger for both trust and mistrust. If we go more deeply to understanding how we trust and make our evaluations and decisions, it requires breaking down the elements and looking at the situation holistically. The result will be a genuine and meaningful understanding of how we trust and will lead to behaviors and beliefs that are less emotional and more foundational and objective-based.

Real Life Trust in Business

  • The Organization: Earning Customer Trust

The quality of the information you share is the most powerful trust builder across institutions and organizations. What you stand for is not a platitude. Mobilize a cross-disciplinary, multi-department team to dig into how stakeholders trust you. Break down the elements and do some rigorous investigation to vet how trustworthy your organization is. Then consider how your customers trust you; Edelman reports that 58% of respondents buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. And when it comes to the workforce, 60% of employees choose a place to work based on their beliefs and values. With these high numbers, it’s essential to have a clear articulation of your values and how you can maximize your trust relationship with customers and employees. And trust translates to worth and value. A significant 88% of institutional investors subject ESG to the same scrutiny as operational and financial considerations.

Many organizations take the easy street and do what they have always done in the past, hoping for better results. The radar is on high alert among customers and employees alike to detect deception and misinformation. Remember, how to trust is calibrated on the source; the relationship/history with the source; values alignment with the source; inherent biases (positive and negative) and the yearnings to want to trust the source.

  • Communication and Marketing: Speaking Concretely and Truthfully

Does your organization market to customers based on instincts and intuition that focus on concise over-promising based language to create immediacy without building trust?
Does your organization market to prospective customers in the same way without building a relationship of trust, one-on-one? Do you use data and analytics to know how your customers or prospective customers trust you? Or is it guesswork … or a complete omission?

Most know that customer acquisition is expensive, and its near-term churn makes it even more of a costly exercise. Building numbers of customers in the short-term, without building trust based on quality delivery, service and yes, even trustworthy communication, isn’t a sustainable strategy in the long term. High retention, low churn should always be the goal constructed with a clear understanding of how to build a relationship of trust.

Marketing and communications are often the major sources of relationships with customers. Organizations generally (and subjectively) believe too much information is indeed too much information and therefore, conciseness should be the goal. Bullets are best. A single call to action, well. just perfect.

We overlook in that marketing mantra the opportunity to build a relationship of trust. Instead, being thoughtful, emotional, and communicative to what customers want from the organization should become the major intent of any marketing or communication.

Chip Health, Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior and noted author, says it best: “Communications of any sort, should be ‘concrete’ and results in painting a picture and a story, be emotional to connect to the recipient, and lastly make it as simple as possible. Simple in this sense, isn’t overly concise, a set of three-word bullets or representative of a single call to action. Simple as possible means providing enough information that the recipient understands what is being shared and its relationship to them, feeling and connecting to the emotion and in painting the picture, ensuring it is concrete. Where concrete leads to creating a bidirectional relationship of trust.”

The fatal flaw in running any organization is assuming what your customers want and focusing only on the acquisition of customers. This fatal flaw transcends to employees as well. Communications without a basis on relationship and trust (and let’s add respect) lead to low morale and low employee retention. In both cases, trust is eroded if the managers making executive decisions about product development, marketing and communications, management and treatment of staff, are working in silos and isolation.

The margin for error in earning trust is slim. Customers and employees may hold off on trusting you until they know they are safe and feel secure. How do they learn to trust you? Actions? Words? Optics? Every organization must provide trustworthy information with clear, consistent, concrete, fact-based information to break the cycle of distrust.

  • Sales: Potential Situational Trust

It is a frequently shared behavior for salespeople to be optimistic, which influences their sales estimates with hopeful thinking. However, there is no gain in situational trust; minor lies equate to an overall loss of credibility and trust. This is a real challenge for managers who rely on sales data to project profitability.

Customers are often overpromised about what they are buying by enthusiastic sales reps. When the customer learns the truth, that relationship is broken, especially if the customer believes they were “had” and appears foolish to their own management. Making sales numbers with “minors lies” may be achieved in the short-term, however, the customer won’t continue to be a customer. Sales, in the pantheon of organizational functions, must be based on trust. Success is about building relationships strengthened by mutual trust.

  • Workforce: Earning Trust

Let’s turn our attention to internal organization systems and dynamics: Say what you mean and mean what you say. And don’t assume everyone thinks the same way you do. Trust is the only true measure employees have with their co-workers, managers, and leaders. As part of an organization, each employee, regardless of position, needs to feel trusted and be able to trust those around them. Mistrust is created when individual goals take precedence; organizational politics become ingrained into the culture; competition becomes dirty pool, and individuals use minor and even major lies to make themselves look better, convolute results, or skew the facts. This is a description of an organization in deep trouble. It is rotten from the inside out filled with mistrust that disables the system, processes, and people.

Employees, at the start, may initially trust leadership giving them the benefit of the doubt. Doubt can grow, shrink or go away completely in direct correlation to the level of trust in managers and the organization. In the journey of building trust with employees, being honest, transparent, and concrete earns long-term established trust.

Acknowledgment and appreciation play important roles in building trust and maintaining good relationships. Individuals who recognize the efforts of others increase the trust others have in them. Likewise, if individuals don’t demonstrate appreciation, they appear selfish, which destroys trust.

Individuals in leadership positions may do things purely for approval from employees and their boards. If that means sacrificing a code of values and beliefs, trust in yourself, your values, and your beliefs is tarnished. How do stakeholders, including employees, trust leaders who aren’t truthful and concrete? They need the confidence that leadership does what is right, even when others disagree. People tend not to trust those who always say whatever they think others want to hear. Trust is built on respect.

Even worse is when individuals in leadership positions ignore majority opinion. Bias and failure to listen objectively lead to jumping to conclusions and being defensive when the majority may be right. How stakeholders trust is having access to provide feedback and having that input recognized. Never seeking their individual feedback is a huge, missed opportunity to effectively guide the organization. Consider our piece on “Leading with Courage” that promoted the necessity for downstream and upstream acceptance of input and feedback, even if that input and feedback was critical.

Trust is gained when one is truthful, open and openly recognizes failure and fault, demonstrating that individuals are not perfect. We all make mistakes and the recognition of the mistakes creates learning, humility and vulnerability. Visible vulnerability in this instance, also builds trust. It is not earned by spinning a story to deflect or ignore majority opinion and hold firm on biases. Being empathetic and communicating as simply as possible with truth also builds our own trust in ourselves.

A Final Word

Fundamentally, human beings are fairly lazy as they seek to limit the amount of energy to expend and allow others to lead, inform, and tell them what they should believe. We may rationalize this as not having the time or energy to do the work and fully investigate. For example, we may glaze over confronted by a spreadsheet full of numbers and trust what we are told those numbers mean. It has been reported that people don’t like to read and therefore communications need to be concise, bullets points or a Cliff Notes summary.

Why? Majorly because it takes mental energy to spend time to understand the numbers and read the 200-page manual. The lazy approach is the energy to trust what we are told. Our nature is to believe that a trusted source is telling the truth. It is complex managing our default behaviors to identify how we trust, particularly in a fast-moving society where the speed and quantity of inputs exceed our ability to ingest and analyze everything coming our way. At 2040, we work with clients to use critical thinking to discern how to trust and understand the distinction between trust and misinformation. We believe that if you know how to trust you will make better decisions, run an organization more effectively and provide the insights and inspirations to lead your stakeholders through the public arena of misinformation and mistrust.

Read this issue and past issues on 2040’s Website>

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Kevin Novak

Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut