Message to Davos: Don't blame lack of trust on 'society'

The reason people don't trust you is probably much closer to home, says public relations veteran and author Robert Phillips.

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2020

"Same shit, different decade" is how the Slicker columnist in Private Eye summarised the current noise surrounding trust in business and the apparent end of capitalism as we know it. 

With green-washing as the new normal and ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) set to supersede CSR as the favoured corporate jargon, "many see the new, caring capitalism as a politically expedient sham, perpetrated by those with the most to lose." 

No doubt some organisations, including B-Corps, would disagree. But perhaps the likes of hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and BlackRock’s Larry Fink – all vocal critics of the prevailing model of capitalism - protest too much?

Over-eager pleadings on corporate purpose and a misunderstanding of the trust issue remain integral to the sham. This is the thinking behind the newly-launched Trust Delusion project, exploring why business leaders and politicians bang-on about trust in a way that is significantly detached from the lived experience of employees, customers and voters. 

What matters to "us" is not what apparently pre-occupies "them". This is another manifestation of elites vs. the masses, boardroom isolation from the real world, and the vacuum of meaningful participation.

While customers are concerned with core issues of honesty, competence and reliability ("I trust my bank to keep my money safe"; "I trust the ATM to work"; "I trust Amazon to deliver my parcel"; "I trust Ryanair to get me there on time… and cheaply"), those in leadership positions appear happier making grandiose statements about a mythical global condition, the parlous state of trust in business and politics – a favourite reprise of those who lost the UK General Election in 2019. 

The truth is far more mundane, as the election showed: people were more interested in "getting Brexit done" than worried about placing trust in a leader and organisation that had, on many occasions, clearly breached acceptable levels of honesty and trustworthiness. They rejected fanciful wish-lists of undeliverable promises, funded from the magic money tree. 

The learning from this is that leaders should focus their businesses and their systems on what they can change, in a very practical way, for the better – on customer service, value, pay, reward and wellbeing, i.e. on what matters to people in their everyday experience. Trust flows thereafter.

Having a noisy Vision/ Mission/ Values statement means nothing if a business or its leader fails in its core competencies and shuns accountability to the promises they make. The practical trumps the pseudo-philosophical every time. 

Brands form an emotional bond with their customers, just as companies do with their employees: trust falls whenever that bond is abused or broken. Trustworthiness is thus defined by customers and workers, not by those in boardroom brainstorms or marketing teams.

In early research, over 90 per cent of business leaders are still using trust as part of their narrative around what is wrong and needs to be fixed in business today; 37 per cent argue that trust remains their single biggest issue, although only 20 per cent have an operational plan to sort it out. In the absence of concrete action, these trust arguments amount to little more than hollow spin.

This is all part of a conscious blame game. The trust deficit is constantly attributed by business leaders to a wider societal trend but this is simply not evidenced by the data. 

Despite a few spikes – most notably in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – trust levels have remained chronically low but have not been further corroded by seemingly endless pay excesses, tax challenges, corporate scandals and failures of recent years – from RBS and Volkswagen to Facebook and Boeing. 

For business leaders, speaking about trust in the abstract therefore offers a convenient way of deflecting real issues - a determined wilful blindness or some sort of hopeful "get out of jail free" card.

Make no mistake where the buck really stops, though. In Jericho’s Trust Delusion research, 92 per cent of respondents see the CEO and/or chair of an organisation as responsible for managing both trust and reputation. If there is an epic failure of trust, or competence, there really is only one person to blame. Accountability is therefore fundamental to the practical trust equation. 

Finally, there is a worrying misalignment of what really matters. CEOs in their ivory towers may well delude themselves on the trust agenda. But our findings – conducted among an informed group of corporates, politicians, policy-makers, academics and civil society groups – place greater and more urgent emphasis on two other issues: the climate emergency and tech disruption. Sort these before the esoteric stuff on trust and even Brexit, was the feedback – by a factor of three to one.

As business leaders start their annual pilgrimage to the snowy heights of Davos, they would therefore be better off thinking about their own de-carbonisation plans and protecting the human future of their workforces. 

They need to make these real: practical, workable proposals on climate and technology will mean a whole lot more to customers and employees than spewing hot air on issues of trust, purpose or the need for a better capitalism.

Robert Phillips is the founder of Jericho Chambers and author of Trust Me, PR is Dead and The Trust Delusion (and How To Avoid It). The first podcast in the Trust Delusion series – featuring Barclays UK Chair, Sir Ian Cheshire; IpsosMORI CEO, Ben Page; and philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill - is released on Sunday 19 January.

Image credit: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

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