Being told something is generally the consequence of someone else’s desire to bring it to your attention – that there’s a deadline looming that you need to meet, that you need to be aware that a particular activity is forbidden wherever you are, or that your choice of outfit might not be showing you in your best light. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s inadvertently amusing (I always enjoyed a friend’s office door that had a stern ‘No Tapdancing’ sign on it, in case anyone was about to break into the best Fred and Ginger routine); sometimes, however, it can have effects that we can only assume weren’t intended.

Mark Gould, writing at his Enlightened Tradition blog, provides a personal example to illustrate this point – and an explanation as to why a reminder might not have the intended effect:

I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.”

Having once worked in an office with a particularly undermining manager, both explanations ring true and I’d even venture a third: people who have become intensely irritated (and consequently rather flustered) at being ‘reminded’ for the 37th time that morning are more likely to make clumsy mistakes than those who’ve been allowed to calmly perform the role that were initially deemed competent enough at to recruit them. (And the levels of sarcasm and swearing in the workplace also tend to rise in parallel.)

But, having also recently looked at the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer findings (you can download the Executive Summary as a PDF), we might also want to factor in fourth and fifth elements: our trust in the person delivering the message, and our trust in the medium. Factoring in trust – in the sense of the credibility of the person delivering the message – moves us into more complex and rather more serious ground than the number of plates that arrive safely at their intended destination.

One aspect of the Barometer’s findings that caught my eye was the number of times repondents reported the need to hear something before they believe it. While Mark Gould’s example might suggest that repetition breeds discontent (although as the rest of his article goes on to argue, it’s more a matter of inappropriate focusing of the audience’s attention), the Edelman report – under the sub-heading ‘Skepticism requires repetition’ – indicates we need to hear something more times than we used to before we actually believe it. 63% of reportees now need to hear something between three and five times before we give it credence. (For the Japanese, whose trust in NGOs, Government and the media has taken a hefty hit in the aftermath of Fukushima, that figure is a worrying 82%.) We are, it seems, increasingly becoming a world of Victor Meldrews.

And although trust may be an abstract noun, it is something we place in concrete entities: our sceptism about information is related to the degree of trust we have in its source. Although Edelman is measuring credibility only in terms of information received about a company, credibility as sources for both CEOs and Government officials and regulators has plummeted over the last 12 months, recording their biggest declines in the Barometer’s history. As these declines are larger than those seen during the opening years of ‘the financial crisis’ – and return trust levels to those seen in 2008/9 – these findings should ring alarm bells. But what was equally intriguing was the identification of those groups in which our faith has seemingly grown fastest: ‘regular employees’ and ‘a person like yourself’. The commentary in the report makes an interesting observation here:

As government officials and CEOs become less a source of trusted information, people are once again turning to their peers. “A person like me” has re-emerged as one of the three most credible spokespeople, with its biggest increase in credibility since 2004 (figure 10). Seeing a similar rise in credibility are regular employees, who saw their number jump by 16 points. Smart businesses will take advantage of this dispersion of authority. They will talk to their employees first, and empower them to drive the conversation among their peers about the company and its role in society.”

It would be encouraging to think that these smart businesses will do something to address the credibility of their CEOs too. Commenting on both the Edelman findings and the Harris Interactive Annual Reputation Quotient, Pro-Active Communications’ Mark Serrano wisely pointed out that trust in companies varies widely between sectors. While government spokespeople may be widely disbelieved in many countries, the public perceptions of banking and finance on one hand and the technology industry on the other are two entirely different jerry-cans full of pasties. (Forgive me, but some topical references just cry out to be made sometimes.) While we can forgive people with penchants for polo-necks, a personal hygiene problem and a tendency to tell us their phones don’t work because we’re “holding them wrong”, people whose industries bring our economies to their knees will henceforth get short shrift: after all, these are two different kinds of ‘getting a grip’.

What both Mr Serrano and the authors of the Edelman Executive Summary tease out of the figures are some lessons for current business leaders. One of the more depressing figures from Edelman is the employees and ‘executives’ both regard each other as the second least trustworthy sources of information: this suggests it is not just trust but communication that has been breaking down.

But we also live in a world where most of us have the resources of the Internet at our fingertips to track down information. As well as the Harris finding that half of us research companies as well as products before doing business with them, Edelman finds the fastest growing level of trust in different media sources in online searches and social media. While it’s worth pointing out our levels of trust are still low in absolute terms, this does chime with our increasing faith in ‘a person like me’ as a reliable source of information. (As Mark Serrano also points out, the ‘traditional corporate website’ also doesn’t give most people the experience or the information they hope to find or deliver any sense of personal or emotional connection. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen has been pointing out for many years, companies need to learn to write websites for their customers, not for themselves: unless you’re talking to the bathroom mirror, you are not your own audience.)

While the net also provides ample examples of analyses of these figures to suggest new engagement strategies for businesses (which can be summarised bluntly as ‘let the public talk to the employees directly, as they’re more likely to believe them’), and much of this advice can be parlayed in terms that stumble towards aligning it with current imperatives in employee engagement strategies, it does seem to rather let leaders – trust in whom is declining – off the hook.

One table of figures in the 2012 Trust Barometer shows the gaps between the factors seen as important for businesses and perceptions of actual performance: the areas flagged as those where the gap is closing are also those where their importance as factors is lowest – in other words, the gap was already smaller and the target lower. The Edelman authors conclude that the factors where future trust can be best built are societal, not operational, and they highlight the following in particular (the figures in percentages are the gaps between importance and performance):

  • • Listens to customer needs and feedback (-31%)
  • • Treats employees well (-37%)
  • • Places customers ahead of profits (-36%)
  • • Has ethical business practices (-29%)
  • • Takes actions to address issue or crisis (-34%)

They characterise the difference that these aspects can bring as marking the difference between ‘a license to operate’ and a ‘license to lead’. As an organisation that has always argued the leadership is defined by your behaviours and their impact on others, and not by the job title on your business card, that’s a message we’d like to hope we have retained sufficient credibility to deliver. And we’re prepared to say a few more times if necessary.

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