Trust in Crisis - The Challenge for Creative Leaders

“An Implosion of Trust” was the ominous headline that kicked off the start of 2017, as the findings from Edelman’s annual survey showed, for the first time, that public trust in all the major institutions (business, government, media and NGOs) had fallen.  With Edelman’s latest barometer showing trust to still be in the red in more than two-thirds of the countries surveyed and plummeting in the US, the outlook for 2018 doesn’t look a whole lot better. Sadly, in this ‘post truth’ era, where world leaders openly lie, the media is ‘fake’ and businesses routinely put profits ahead of ethics, it’s not exactly news that trust is at an all-time low.

As Edelman explains in its latest findings, we entrust these institutions with important aspects of our lives, so we need to believe they will act with integrity and in our best interests, “Trust, therefore, is at the heart of an individual’s relationship with an institution and, by association, its leadership.” And it’s the role of leadership here that’s key. One recent study of 2,500 of the world’s largest companies showed that, “CEO dismissals for ethical lapses have increased by a whopping 36 per cent over the past five years”, including bribery, sexual indiscretions and fraud. This is not because those in charge are suddenly behaving much worse than before but because businesses in the information age, and by default those in charge of them, are coming under much closer scrutiny and greater pressure from customers, investors and staff, to live up to their ideals. Additionally, thanks to the permanence of the internet and the amplification of social media, scandals are no longer so easily swept under the carpet.  Against this backdrop, it’s not entirely surprising that according to the latest data, building trust surpasses developing high-quality products and services as the number one job for CEOs.

Of course, it’s not just the moral and social cost of unethical behaviour in business that is so problematic – the corresponding collapse of trust leads to real business costs as employees disengage and customers walk. Uber’s recent upheaval is a great case in point: former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s now historic blog post, sparked a crisis of trust in the organisation because she exposed the company culture of ‘growth at any cost’. As we now know, that tone for the business was set from the top.

When you look at the issues that are currently facing the creative industries – from the abysmal track-records for talent diversity, to gender pay gaps, to the endemic tolerance of sexual harassment in the workplace – we are potentially facing our own crisis of trust, which those in charge have to rapidly address.  In a recent study, it was shown that 86% of Millennials consider it a main priority to work for a business that conducts itself responsibly and ethically. As Millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, we can ill-afford a lack of clarity around our ethical standards, our codes of accepted behaviour and the processes by which these are maintained.

However, it’s not rigidly implemented policy that will make the real difference: the ability of businesses to build and maintain the trust of staff, shareholders and clients alike ultimately stems from leadership. Be under no illusion, leaders shape culture. Their standards of behaviour and the values they live and breathe set the tone and tenor for the rest of the business, more than any published code of conduct. So if you run a team or a business, then these guiding principles can help to build sustainable trust in a tough climate:

Walk the talk
In business, trust is built not just on the quality of what you deliver but in how you deliver it. As the perception of trust often hinges on values and behaviour, your company values should express what matters most to the organisation about the way you do business. Therefore, having really clear, shared values for accepted and expected organisational behaviour, that are embodied by everyone in the business, from the top down, is key. Hiring, appraising and rewarding against the behaviours and attitudes that demonstrate the company’s values, are great ways of ensuring that your team strives to live up to the ideals of the business. But a nicely crafted set of values means nothing if they aren’t rooted in the reality of the leaders’ collective behaviours. Be in no doubt that your team scrutinises everything you do for clues as to what is acceptable or even desirable behaviour. When it comes to values, actions speak far louder than words, so if what you do isn’t aligned with what you say, then trust will erode and your team will quickly learn the real values that matter in your business.

Take a stand

“Silence is now deeply dangerous – a tax on truth” - Richard Edelman

What the Uber example shows, is that it’s not just how leaders behave themselves that can build or destroy trust – it’s also how they deal with issues as they arise. Unfortunately, as a leader, it’s often what you don’t do that is as telling as what you do do …so quiet compliance, or turning a blind eye speaks volumes about what you are prepared to let people get away with – or maybe even condone as a leader. When it comes to ethical matters or conduct issues, not taking action is as good as tacit approval. So have appropriate protocols in place for responding and dealing quickly with conduct issues and be transparent about facing up to wider problems in your organisation, with shared plans for how the business will address them. As the saying goes, ‘a principle is not a principle, until it costs you’ – and one of the fastest ways to build trust is by standing up for what you believe is right and acting with integrity, even in the toughest of circumstances.

Create an open culture
Based on the theories of economist, Albert Hirschman, employees really have only three choices when confronted with unethical or inappropriate behaviour: ‘exit’ (vote with your feet), ‘voice’ (stay put and complain), or ‘loyalty’ (keep quiet and hope the problem goes away). Sadly, it would seem that ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’ all too often feel like the only viable options, given the fear of the potential reprisals for speaking out. What the #MeToo movement has done so effectively, is to start laying the much-needed ground work for it being OK to ‘voice’ in the workplace – to be able to stand up for yourself and others and to expose problems in the business, without fear of recrimination or retribution.

For those in charge, building trust is critical to creating an environment in which it’s OK to ‘voice’. This is as much about creating a transparent culture, in which it’s OK to give mutual feedback and in which everyone’s opinions are encouraged, respected and heard – as it is about having the appropriate forums and processes in place to enable people to safely raise issues or complaints. In doing both you will create the cultural conditions that act as a deterrent, whilst providing the support mechanisms for swiftly dealing within any breaches. So ask yourself this – how does my business currently make it safe to ‘voice’ both openly and discreetly? If you can’t answer that question, you have urgent work to do.

Right now we need our businesses leaders, more than ever, to be the torch-bearers for progress and strong ethics, at a time when our global leaders come up wanting. And we need our businesses to be safe and inspiring havens in which we are encouraged and supported to do our best work. But this requires our organisations to be built on trust and if you’re in charge, this starts – or stops – with you. As Seth Godin says, “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

Tanya Livesey