What has happened to trust and how can we regain it?

Rewriting the rules on trust and leadership with Dr John Blakey of The Trusted Executive Foundation.

business leaders need to earn trust
The British are suspicious of government and politicians, fear that their leaders are not telling them the truth and have deep fears about how technology will affect their jobs in the future. That is the finding of the 2020 Trust Barometer from Edelman, which for the last 20 years has been measuring levels of trust in Britain and around the world.The results, released at the beginning of this year, show that Britain is at its lowest ever position in a global table of trust among the mass populations of 28 countries. Only Russia is a less trusting society.The 2020 Trust Barometer is Edelman’s 20th annual trust and credibility survey, measuring trust across a number of institutions, sectors and geographies. The Barometer surveys more than 34,000 respondents across 28 countries.

A loss of faith in leadership and democracy?

The study found that 3 in 5 Britons are losing faith in democracy as an effective form of government and over half believe that capitalism does more harm than good. Institutions are seen by the British as less competent and more unethical compared to the global average. The public blame politicians for creating an environment of fear for their own political gain. Other key findings include:
  • 72 per cent believe the government does not understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them effectively
  • Three-quarters of British people fear losing their job: fears include the gig-economy, automation and globalisation  
  • 45 per cent feel their views are not represented in British politics
  • 62 per cent of employees would like the opportunity to shape the future of society
A similar picture emerged in November 2019 after the publication of the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, which found trust in politicians had fallen over the last year, sending them to the bottom of the index.Mike Clemence, research manager at Ipsos MORI, says, “Ipsos MORI’s long-running Veracity Index allows us to trace the evolution of trust in a variety of professions since the early eighties.“This year we see significant falls in public trust in both Government Ministers and politicians more generally. Trust in politicians is now at levels comparable to those recorded during previous periods of ‘bad news’ such as the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the 2009 expenses crisis.”

Bad news for leaders

The declining levels of trust have serious implications for employee engagement and leadership. If your staff don’t trust the people at the top, how can you persuade them to join you on a journey of change? How can leaders communicate differently in order to win hearts and minds?The answer, says Dr John Blakey – author of The Trusted Executive and one of the top international thought leaders on organisational trust – is to look at our models of leadership and rewrite the playbook, based this time on trust.Dr Blakey, who combines prize-winning doctoral research on trust with practical experience as a business leader and pioneer in the executive coaching profession, says the erosion of trust is a process that has been happening for the past decade. 

A brief history of trust

“The lack of trust dates back to the global financial crisis in 2008,” Dr Blakey says. “Many leaders at that time felt that something fundamental had happened and I wanted to help leaders make sense of that. There was a loss of trust in banking, politicians and authorities, and trust levels took a big blow.”Even before the financial crisis there had already been a big blow to trust as a result of the 2003 Iraq war. Claims by US president George Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair that Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes were still actively building weapons and that large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Iraq, were found to be exaggerated. It was to be the beginning of Mr Blair’s downfall and had a profound effect on levels of public trust of politicians.

Read more from Dr John Blakey on Renewing your license to lead


A lack of trust in politicians and the establishment also contributed to the bitter debate over Brexit in 2016 and was seen during the US elections, in which the Russians allegedly ran ‘fake news’ articles across social media and the electorate chose Donald Trump who promised to “drain the swamp” and face down the establishment he called out as corrupt.More recently in the UK, the social contract of trust between the people and the government has been thrown into sharp focus as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Health officials from Public Health England last week faced a backlash over a decision not to release information about where new covid-19 cases are until a weekly roundup announced each Friday. The public body has now gone back to giving daily updates. By denying the public information that could help them make informed decisions, Public Health England had been viewed as attempting to keep information secret and not working in partnership with the public.

Social media holds a lens up to leadership

In world where social media is a central part of people’s lives, the rules have changed, Dr Blakey says. Leaders who don’t display high trust values are at risk of being exposed.“Senior leaders are role models for trust and this helps to cascade down through the organisation,” he says. “The behaviour of the CEO is critical in fostering a high trust environment. Their behaviour is the biggest single factor in creating this. Your leadership is a role model for everyone else.”
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In a transparent world we can see what is going on, Dr Blakey says. People have a voice, they have a good level of education and they are not prepared to put up with being treated as less than equal. “We are seeing stuff that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago,” he says. For example, the decision by the Samaritans to abandon the appointment of a new chief executive who has been accused of bullying and using non-disclosure agreements to silence outgoing staff at another charity.“Some people in leadership roles do get exposed like this and seem surprised,” Dr Blakey says. “Many leaders say to me that it feels as though the rules of the game have changed, but no one is helping explain how it has changed and what they need to do. The leaders out there feel exposed. They are looking for help in navigating the way.”

Swift retribution

He cites the example of the Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick caught on film arguing with an Uber driver about the rates for fares. The clip is still widely available for viewing on YouTube. Mr Kalanick later issued a grovelling apology and said he was intending to seek help to improve his leadership skills. Uber has also faced criticism for a female employee who accused it of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment. The company has faced a Twitter campaign urging people to #DeleteUber.Similar gaffs have dented the reputation of well-known and high-profile CEOs. Last year Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork, was personally criticised for his handling of the company’s IPO. Ken Fisher’s fund management business lost a number of key clients after comments he made in a private capacity about the fund management business. In 2018, whistleblowers at Oxfam went public with accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct at the charity – triggering similar action from women at Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and the UN.

Public role, private scrutiny

In an age of Twitter and social media, bad behaviour by executives can be caught on film and quickly go viral. Increasingly, CEOs face scrutiny for both private and public behaviour. Any inappropriate language or actions can reflect badly on the company as a whole and damage the brand’s reputation.Dr Blakey says, “I showed the Uber clip to some executives recently and one asked me: ‘John, does that mean I need to behave as though I were on video 24 hours a day?’ And I said, yes you do.“He said he felt that was a difficult job description and I told him: ‘If you don’t want the job, don’t apply for it’. This is the new reality. We are renewing the licence to lead based on trust rather than the old leadership based on power. That means that leaders are increasingly in a more vulnerable position. They need to change some of their habits.”

Which leaders will be brave enough to be early adopters?

Not all leaders are ready or willing to change and many organisations are still built on the premise that the people at the top know best and are the ones who give orders to those below, without listening to feedback or taking on board dissenting views.“I am looking for the believers,” Dr Blakey says. “Not everyone believes this, but I am looking for people who are brave enough to recognise the changes that are taking place and who are willing to be early adopters. In other words, people who are willing to gamble that this is the future and we build a better and more inclusive culture this way.“There will still be those who operate in the old way for many years, although things are moving more quickly than I expected. If Oxfam’s reputation can be damaged in the space of a week, how fragile are most brands when it comes to trust? The answer is much more than many of them realise.”

A new way to lead, based on trust not power

Add to this a sceptical Millennial workforce who have rewritten the rules on work-life balance and who are more mobile and more demanding in their careers. “That generation asks fundamental questions of an organisation,” Dr Blakey says. “They ask the why questions – why is the singular purpose of business to make profit? They want to see business think beyond the pure aim of making money.”If we are used to using power as the currency of leadership, what does it mean to shift to a culture of trust? Dr Blakey says the three pillars of trust are ability, integrity and benevolence. Changing your leadership style can start with using new types of language. Instead of giving orders, the new leaders listen, coach, ask questions and draw out the potential of those they work with.“Trust is about the willingness to take a risk in situations where you can’t guarantee the outcome,” he says. It is a willingness to allow people to deliver in a situation where you do not have a 100 per cent guarantee.“A CEO who wants to change to a culture of trust needs the tools and evidence to demonstrate the benefits to the business and be able to persuade other board members and executives. It is about showing that a high trust culture delivers fantastic outcomes for all stakeholders in terms of profitability, employee engagement and customer loyalty,” Dr Blakey adds.

Why trust and why now?

“When senior leaders act as role models for trust, then this cascades down through an organisation,” he says. “The behaviour of the CEO is critical in fostering a high-trust culture. Leaders say to me that they feel as though the rules of the game have changed, but no one has explained what they need to do to navigate these changes.”Dr Blakey is one of our keynote speakers at Relocate’s Festival of Global People at The Tower of London on 12 May. His presentation will ask ‘Why Trust and why now?’ Using deep data he will explain how the three pillars of trust are ability, integrity and benevolence, and how these will underpin the future success of an organisation.

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