Like a particularly annoying earworm, the subject of trust (or, to be more precise, a lack of trust) has been preying on my mind in the last few months.
For example, trust was a theme running through a training course my company was giving on desk research best practice. The issue was: how do you know which sources of information to trust and which ones to be sceptical about? The golden rule used to be: if two or more different sources say something, you can probably trust it (and the more sources giving a piece of information, the more trustworthy it is). I’m not sure that is the case any more. If you want to make a point you can often find multiple sources to back your case. And if you want to make the opposite point, you can also find multiple sources to back you up.
Social media is so unreliable that it’s difficult to take anything at face value. By way of an example, let’s look at the current election campaigns. As I write this, the general election campaigns are less than a week old, but already I’ve been inundated with Facebook messages of all political hues explaining that Labour will take us back to the 1970s, that Jeremy Corbyn is in the pocket of the Russians, that the Tories will take us back to the second world war, and that Boris Johnson is in the pocket of the Russians. I’m actually avoiding Facebook at the moment as I do not trust the content.
With the UK general election campaigns in full swing, there has been a lot of discussion around the subject of trust. Can Jeremy Corbyn be trusted with the economy? Can Boris Johnson be trusted with anything?
Rachel Botsman is the author of ‘Who Can You Trust’ and a fellow at Oxford Business School. She notes that, although a lack of trust in politicians is hardly front-page news, levels of distrust in Britain are at an all-time high. She identifies a “trust vacuum”, where manipulation, emotional truths and sleights of hand can flourish.
Ms Botsman identifies the key elements of trustworthiness: reliability, competence, empathy and integrity. Full disclosure: I’m not a Conservative voter. Nevertheless, I’m trying my best to be neutral for a moment. Yet, surely Jeremy Corbyn ticks three of those boxes, and surely Boris Johnson ticks none of them. And yet, polls indicated that Johnson is trusted much more than Corbyn.
This is not purely a UK phenomenon. The world is increasingly full of untrustworthy people in high office, with Donald Trump the most striking example. However, with Trump, as with Johnson, untrustworthiness is said to be ‘factored in.’ So, trust can be jettisoned to a ‘greater end.’
The reality is that public trust in politicians has been low for over five years, and is getting lower over time (as illustrated by research by the University of Southampton). A lack of trust in the political system is thought to have been one of the major factors behind the 2016 referendum result.
PR company Edelman runs an annual Trust Barometer, which shows that trust in major institutions such as government, political parties, business and the media is in decline. Interestingly the institutions considered the most trustworthy are the family and the employer.
A friend of mine who offers coaching to businesspeople and other leaders recently sent me a link to a business guru on the subject of trust. In the video the guru talked about what business can learn from the military. He’s asked various military personnel how they chose soldiers to go on crucial missions. The answer took the form of a graph, with the y-axis being performance on the battlefield, training ground or classroom. The x-axis was trust: how much a person can be trusted. The holy grail is obviously the top right-hand part of the chart, where people are both high performers and also highly trusted. But interestingly they would also choose people who are middling performers but highly trusted over those who are high performers but only middling in terms of trust. Trust trumps performance.
The argument is that a high level of trust is better for the longer-term health of an organisation compared to short term performance. The trouble is that business (and politics) usually focuses on the short-term performance, whether annual sales or profitability targets or winning the next election.
Also, while there are multiple ways to measure performance, trust is an undervalued and under-measured metric.
It would be great to redress the balance and put a greater value on trust. However, I’m a bit worried that we’re going in the opposite direction.
Trevor Wilkinson, Purple Market Research and BIG Treasurer