Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Many companies turn to ethics because they want to build a ‘trusted brand’. Often they are trying to repair the broken relationship they have with their customers, institutional stakeholders or the wider public.
Trust is a topic that is spoken about in many industries. Among the many crises we’re experiencing today, one of the most potent is a crisis of trust in institutions. We don’t trust journalists, nor politicians, nor the institutions these individuals work for. We don’t trust think tanks, social media platforms, commercial organisations, religious organisations … the list goes on.
In September 2020, the Pew Research Center found that “just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time.” This is an astonishing low.
The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that no institution is seen as both competent and ethical* - which are the two dimensions needed for trust.
Although this is a concern for many leaders, it would be the wrong approach to try to become ‘more trusted’. Trust is a by-product. You only gain trust when you have a reputation for trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is gained by committing to act in a certain way and following through on that promise. More institutions should be asking about how to act with integrity - in a way that means they are worthy of being relied on.
Trustworthiness is not binary, we can never expect to be trusted by everyone on all things. For example, I trust my grandmother with my cash, but not with my banking app. I trust my bank manager to keep my money secure, but not to keep my home secure.
There are also situations where we don’t want another’s trust. Trust carries demands, and those demands are sometimes difficult to live up to. For example, there are times when I don’t wish to be privy to a secret, or a piece of gossip. There are other times when I wish that I wasn’t being held to standards that I don’t think are appropriate for our working relationship. Trust also includes negotiation and boundary setting.
You have to be really clear about the relationship you are looking to have with your stakeholders, the promises you can actually keep, and the transformation that needs to happen to enable trustworthiness.
Game theory is an important part of understanding trust. It explores the ideas around gaining as an individual and gaining as a collective. My favourite way to explore game theory and trust is via this playable simulation by Nicky Case called the evolution of trust.
In it, we can see that a mixture of trust and suspicion of other people is a good approach to take in society. This means that we can cooperate with others, but also that we can’t be taken for granted.
However, these kinds of simulations are built on the premise that we’re going to come into contact with the same people, brands and corporations again and again. Cooperative strategies for game theory depend on the same people coming into contact with each other, and learning whether or not they should be trusting of each other. However, we live in a world where we are constantly meeting new people and finding out about new things. A world where we find out about others often not through our own experiences, but rather the mediated experiences of other people.
So game theory only goes so far to understand trust in societies. But it does show us that trust is based on relationships, and that trust needs to be earned. The first step that companies must take is to consider when they are worthy of being trusted, and perhaps when they are not. Then they should consider where different types of trust might be beneficial. I might trust my electricity company to provide me with energy, but I certainly don’t trust them to do it at the best possible price, and I certainly don’t trust them to look out for people who are going through tough financial times.
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Intentions and knowledge
There are two types of mistrust. I may mistrust someone because I do not believe their intentions are good, and I may mistrust someone because I doubt their skillset.
The former is thought of being more in the ethical and moral dimension. Although I may trust a mechanic has the ability to fix my car, I may not trust that they will do it in the most cost and time effective manner. This is because there is an advantage to the mechanic to earn more money from the job.
Not trusting someone’s knowledge is less of a moral statement. I might not trust my niece to have the knowledge to walk home from school by herself. I might not trust my technophobe friend to research and buy my new work laptop.
Many companies want to prove their intentions are to do right by their stakeholders. Others may want to show that their knowledge and skillset is best-in-class. Which is the right approach for you?
Trust and transparency
There’s an interesting debate in trust when it comes to transparency. Common sense would say that greater transparency leads to greater trust. The more you know about a person or institution’s dealings, the more accountable they would be.
However, today we have more transparency than we’ve ever had before. We can access reviews and information about products before we buy them, including data about their supply chains and technical specifications. We can access notes and transcripts of every government meeting possible, and watch Parliament live. We can find the financial reports of companies at the click of a button. But we live in an era of declining trust. How can this be possible?
When we trust someone, we don’t need them to be transparent over their procedures. I trust my sister without knowing what is in her bank account, what her views are on particular issues and without notes on every conversation she has.
O’Neill argues that the real enemy of trust is not secrecy, but is rather deception. “Deceivers ... mislead intentionally, and it is because their falsehood is deliberate, and because it implies a deliberate intention to undermine, damage or distort others' plans and their capacities to act, that it damages trust and future relationships.” She goes on: “Demands for universal transparency are likely to encourage the evasions, hypocrisies and half-truths that we usually refer to as 'political correctness', but which might more forthrightly be called either self-censorship or deception.”
So we should not be looking at transparency, but rather about whether we’re engaging in honest exchanges about what can be demanded of us, and whether we are giving the right information to show that our intentions are in line with what is expected.
Discrimination and bias
There is a discriminatory dimension to this as well. We tend to distrust those who look differently to us, or stereotype people to believe they are untrustworthy or more trustworthy. Although mediated heuristics can be helpful in making judgements about companies and people, they can also hold systemic biases which are unfair. Any theory of trust has to encompass statements about who the company will trust, and how they can make decisions about trustworthiness.
Throughout all of this, I hope that you have drawn two conclusions.
Becoming trusted is not about changing the minds of other people, it’s about undertaking internal changes to show that you can act with integrity.
That much of this is around making commitments to certain duties, and also drawing boundaries about what you cannot do.
There is no quick win to becoming trustworthy and then being trusted. It is even harder to do this if you have a multifaceted company with many different projects and employees. However, here are some important aspects to consider:
Who do you want to trust you?
What do you want to be trusted with? What kind of intentions do you want stakeholders to know you have? What kind of knowledge do you want your stakeholders to know they have?
How will you develop a culture which ensures that all employees understand what behaviour makes them trustworthy?
Are there any stakeholders who are affected by your decisions, but do not directly affect your business outcomes? How will they be incorporated into your theory of trust?
What boundaries will you set? How will you communicate these boundaries effectively?
If you're interested in learning more, and would like to understand how a theory of trust can become part of your ethical strategy and normative ethical framework, then please get in touch.
Onora O’Neill 2002 Reith Lectures - audio and transcript available here.
Trust - a very short introduction - Katherine Hawley
Who can you trust? - Rachel Botsman
*N.B. Edelman uses the word ‘ethical’ here as a mix of integrity, dependability and purpose.