If there were public ratings of your trustworthiness…How would you do? Does it matter?
“Trust is like fresh air; we only notice it when it becomes scarce or polluted,” write Graham Dietz and Nicole Gillespie, business-school professors in the U.K. and Australia.
Most of us consider being trustworthy an important character trait. Some consider trust naïve or foolish. However, even for the less virtuous, there’s a case to be made for it. Trusted leaders create more value, and employees who feel trusted are empowered and deliver better performance.
Dietz and Gillespie suggest we can teach people to be trustworthy. According to these experts, trust is complex but begins with an assessment of others’ trustworthiness. They say it is comprised of three factors: ability, benevolent motives and integrity. If someone has “enough” of these three attributes we begin to rely on them in ways that can pose risks to ourselves. Judgment is made through our own personal exchanges, knowledge from others, or referent cues like a job title, role, and affiliations.
Scandals, when corruption or some malfeasance is made public, come in many forms: bribes, obfuscation, falsification, cronyism, intentional duping, nepotism and known incompetence. Trustworthiness can be undervalued and undermined by organizational culture because of modeled behavior, financial pressures and mis-use of power.
Scandals Create Skeptics
Regrettably, scandals in the highly regulated private sector and nearly unregulated nonprofit sector suggest trust and trustworthiness are not broadly shared priorities.
Recent private examples include Olympus, Siemens, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. Nonprofit examples are easy to identify, too. Like, the Central Asia Institute (think Three Cups of Tea), Princeton Review (the Feds want $50M returned), Angel Food Ministries, Feed the Children, and the Catholic Church (child sexual abuse).
Like false sincerity, it’s possible to do the same with trustworthiness. Real motives and incompetence can be masked by managing communications. Once caught, people and organizations have become quite skillful in delivering the right public apology, displays of faux-contrition and micro-qualifications (e.g.; “I did not have sex with that woman.”)
Identifying and challenging great fakes requires the ability to interpret intentions, navigation of multiple expectations and needs, and a careful review of how organizational climates promote or preclude trust.
A Trust Barometer
For more than a decade, the Edelman Trust Barometer has measured informed public opinion in 23 countries regarding trust in government, business, the nonprofit sector and media. In 2011, the U.S. tumbled, in its composite score, now above only the U.K. and Russia.
Edelman, a full service global public relations firm, suggests the “Fortress Framework” era is over. This “old” scheme refers to protecting brand, controlling information, standing alone and a sole focus on profit. They say the new trust architecture requires transparency, engagement and social benefit.
When it comes to issues of trust, skepticism may be a healthy response to reality.Trust and trustworthiness do matter, particularly because complex work requires collaborators, partners, allies and multiple stakeholders. No doubt, without trust chances for success wane.
-Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com