In the UK, we’re now in the opening phase of the run up to the next election. Whatever else our newspaper front pages and web portals will be full of, you can safely assume that polls and surveys will be prominent, attempting to chart patterns and trends in our opinions. And no doubt statisticians will be beavering away over calculators, endeavouring to ensure that their figures accurately weight every factor. In the 1990s, opinion pollsters found some party supporters were shy of admitting their preferences, and their polls misrepresented opinion as a result. Like the politicians whose persuasiveness and agreeability they sought to monitor, the pollsters were seeking one important response in their audience – they wanted to be trusted. Polls exist to be believed, and as Aesop advised us a long time ago, “never trust the advice of a man in difficulties”. But we have plenty of men – and women – in difficulties right now: that doesn’t make our human need for trust any less important.

Although human nature endows us with scepticism – as someone once said, you can’t trust a promise someone makes while they’re drunk, in love, hungry, or running for office – our ability to co-exist (without each, after all, we can achieve precious little), depends on trust. Wherever our life turns on our relationship with others – work, marriage, family, politics – a degree of trust is essential if the relationship is to function. Over at the Unfolding Leadership blog, you can download Dan Oestreich’s Team Trust Levels Survey: if you want a quick outline of what happens when trust breaks down, or is never built, here’s an extract from his description of a ‘low functioning’ team trust level –

Group members do not consider the environment safe enough to share their real concerns in a group setting, often because these concerns include doubts about other members’ motives and/or competence. People talk about many “undiscussables” in the background but don’t bring them up in meetings because they fear it will result in negative repercussions from other team members or the leader, or that it will simply do no good. As a consequence criticism, blame, or tension among group members sometimes leaks into group interactions …”

Without communication and commitment, our ability to achieve is severely hindered. And without trust, our ability – and even our willingness – to commit and to communicate is greatly diminished. Our lives are inescapably social, and trust is a social essential.

It is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself. ”
Graham Greene

 

Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust and only secondarily on institutions such as courts of justice and police.”
Albert Einstein

Perhaps it’s the impact of the recession – and the media coverage that so emphasised the need for trust and confidence in our financial institutions if they are to function (banking is, ultimately, an act of faith) – but the issue of trust seems to be occupying the survey-makers and pollsters heavily in recent weeks and months.

Ipsos MORI recently conducted the BBC Survey on Trust issues, as the broadcaster was looking to enhance our understanding of the public’s beliefs and attitudes on a variety of subjects; in particular the trust they place in various organisations. From the BBC’s point of view, the results were probably encouraging. In response to the question, “I am going to read out a list of 7 organisations, and would like you to tell me which you trust the most? Which do you trust the next most?”, it came joint top with the NHS. For business, however, the result could hardly be called encouraging. ‘Big British Companies’ came last in the list, with just 3%. (The rest of the survey findings are available online and show the UK as a country that has moved on from “In God we trust”: it seems our faith is now placed most firmly in Radio 4 and The Guardian.)

Although that is probably shocking, closer inspection shows that it is not necessarily ‘news’/ On behalf of the Royal College of Physicians, Ipsos MORI also compiles an Annual Veracity Index, listing a range of professions and the public’s duly and diligently weighted response to the question “… would you tell me if you generally trust them to tell the truth, or not?” Since 1983, only four groups – Business Leaders, Government Ministers, Politicians generally, and Journalists – have consistently scored negatively.

Even Trade Union Officials – with a track record of negative scoring, scored positively in the most recent survey (2008), although the survey doesn’t indicate any causative link between the decreasing media profile this group has received from our apparently perennially untrustworthy journalists. Civil Servants, long the butt of comic abuse, have similarly risen in our esteem over recent years. We may appear to trust a number of brands, but our faith in the businesses behind them would appear to be fainter and more fragile.

Trust in the private sector more specifically is the subject of another barometer – the Edelman Trust Barometer. Usually conducted on an annual basis, the extraordinary circumstances of the last year encouraged Edelman to conduct a mid-year survey in 2009, a summary of which can be downloaded online. Although trust among ‘informed publics’ in business to ‘do what is right’ increased over 10% compared with six months earlier in the US and France, in the UK it actually declined (although it remains higher than opinions of French and German business). In common with both the US and our European neighbours, we have more trust in NGOs, a point picked up on by the FT, which commented:

The trust in NGOs is mirrored in the public’s belief that socially responsible activities are more important for a company than customer service or a strong financial performance, added the survey.”

Current UK attitudes to large global businesses were even more stark. Asked ‘how would you describe [their] reputation’, only 1% of UK respondents said ‘excellent’, and only 12% ‘good’. 62% of us said ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ – the harshest verdict of any of the surveyed countries. Robert Phillips, CEO Edelman UK commented that “Britain has hardened from a nation of sceptics to a nation of cynics”.

Whether our opinions are being shaped by our role in bailing out a recession that was triggered in the business sector, or more simply by the pessimism of living through difficult times, it is hard to tell. But the rollback of the state in recent decades seems to have reached a point where we are more ready to question how much of the social – as opposed to financial – responsibility that private enterprise plays in an increased number of aspects of our lives we should reasonably expect business to take on board. Asked which groups’ interests should be most important to a CEO’s decisions, Edelman shows we score Customers and Employers significantly more highly than Investors, who score equally with ‘Society’. And 83% of us believe business has not done enough to create solutions for global warming – higher even than the figure (77%) for those who believe government shares this failing. It seems we’re becoming more willing to accredit blame – as well as credit – where we feel it is due.

Ethics – or a lack of them – is an issue that will not go away, as it is so central to trust. The Institute of Business Ethics Q4 2008 Survey of Business Ethics (download here) shows a decline from 58% to 51% in those who believe British business currently behaves ethically. Given the headlines it has attracted, ‘executive pay’ predictably headed the list of faux pas, but ‘environmental responsibility’ and ‘discrimination in treatment of people’ were not far behind.

And the figures keep coming. The Institute of Leadership and Management has recently published its Index of Leadership Trust 2009 (download here). The Index uses six dimensions or drivers of trust:

  • Ability
  • Understanding
  • Fairness
  • Openness
  • Integrity
  • Consistency

While the relative importance varies (understanding and fairness are more important in line managers, but CEOs’ ability is overridingly vital, followed closely by their integrity), it is interesting to note that trust in line managers is 10% higher than trust in CEOs. As the commentary notes, “The unscrupulous, however successful, might be respected but they won’t be trusted”.

As a side note, one factor than emerges from the ILM survey is the importance of distance: trust seems to be stronger in closer, more nuanced relationships. The exception might seem to be the level of trust in line managers in the largest organisations, although as ILM note, this may reflect a greater willingness and ability to provide for line management training. Where CEOs have direct managerial responsibility (in the smallest organisations surveyed), they score very highly. In an era of mergers and of distributed working, this increasing physical remoteness should ring alarm bells. (Employees’ trust in CEOs also declines as the employees’ length of service increases – particularly so with women: given CEOs trust ratings improve with their own length of service, the worst recipe is for new CEOs in companies with long-serving workforces.) As ILM conclude:

The research highlights the significance of distance in the relationships between manager and managed, evidenced by the findings that line managers are more trusted than CEOs and that managers show more trust in their CEOs than non-managers. Organisations must strive to minimise that distance and, where that is not possible, to maximise the length of the relationship. In short, successful change management cannot be achieved when managers keep changing.”

Distance is also, of course, measured in quantities other than miles. We can be remote from each other even when we are in close proximity. Returning momentarily to the words of the wise, the following quote from Peter Drucker – researched entirely separately, if serendipitously, from the various surveys above – would seem to underline his status as business sage:

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”

Three of the top four factors that the Edelman survey list as most likely to make respondents trust a company more that can be seen as within a CEO’s sphere of influence:

  • Treat employees well (94%)
  • Have transparent and honest business practices (93%)
  • Communicate frequently and honestly (91%)

All of these can be clearly linked to the ILM’s conclusions that, other than ability, the critical factor for CEOs is ‘a quality than cannot be faked and that is difficult to teach’: integrity. It strikes me an important factor here is self-awareness, and the recognition that their self-image may not necessarily reflect how others see them. As trainingzone reported in publicising the survey, CEOS need to “understand the true impact of their behaviour on the workforce and the organisation as a whole”.

Perhaps we should finish – as we started – with the politicians. There is, after all, little than anyone can lead that is larger than a country, and few people in whom we can place – or withhold – greater trust. The importance of integrity and honesty are certainly not lost on one politician. While the British know him as a writer and media figure, Michael Ignatieff is now leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, and the man most likely to be the country’s next Prime Minister. In a long interview in The Observer (27 September 2009), he countered the view that politicians tend to speak only to utter the party line, even when their actual beliefs may be somewhat different:

Well, you should never knowingly tell a falsehood because it really does poison the well of politics. But in [just] the same way that you really should not tell a falsehood in your private life. I’m not sure I see this huge gulf between the moral world I’ve entered and the moral world I’ve left.”

Yet we are not necessarily seen – and judged – by others as we see and judge ourselves. Admitting, even to ourselves, that others may not always see us positively takes courage. But it is admission that can be effective in improving a relationship. For a topical case study, here’s a brief quote from – similarly appropriately – a politician closer to home. Here’s the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, addressing the Labour Party Conference this week:

I love working for this party and those who work so hard for it – eve if, at times, perhaps not everyone in it has loved me.

I understand that. I made enemies, sometimes needlessly. I was sometimes too careless with the feelings and views of others.

But please accept this. It was for one reason only. I was in a hurry to return this party to where it should be – in government to help the hard-working people of our country.”

In less than seven months time, we will all get to find out if those hard-working people have decided that they can now trust Lord Mandelson and this party more than current polls would suggest. We hope he’s not betting his integrity on it.

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