Updated: Mar 18
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?