We need to talk about trust

Saturday, 01 May 2021

Vanessa Hall photo
Vanessa Hall
Director, Specialist Advisory: Trust, Deloitte

    With the level of trust at an all-time high across Australian institutions, now is the time to develop a strategic plan to continue building and nurturing this key asset.

    With the world changing rapidly and the unexpected quickly becoming the norm, the spotlight is focusing on trust. Do we trust our governments, the media, our people, customers, suppliers, business delivery models— even ourselves? And how do we navigate and manage this when we are unsure and fearful of the consequences?

    What is clear is that some are embracing the change and thriving in it, seeing opportunities to innovate and forge ahead with hybrid working arrangements, new tech systems and processes, and with customers who are open to new ways of doing things. Others are losing ground, trying to figure out how to know if their employees are really working at home and if their customers will notice delivery drop-offs on goods and services. These people are driven more by fear rather than strategically developing a plan to build and nurture trust.

    The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 shows that business leads NGOs, government and media, with 61 per cent of respondents believing it is both ethical and competent to step up to solve the challenges we are all facing.

    With this in mind, boards, directors and leaders need to recognise that trust should be powering every strategy, risk plan, rebrand, restructure and merger. Rather than simply measuring its existence or not, active and intentional planning for it is required.

    The Edelman survey reveals trust across all Australian institutions has reached an all-time high, resulting in significant gains for business (up 11 points), government (up 17 points), NGOs (up eight points) and media (up 12 points). At the same time, Australia’s overall trust index recorded the largest gain globally (up 12 points) among the 27 countries surveyed.

    Regardless of your industry, your mission, your products or services, there is one core thing you need — you need your stakeholders to trust you. All of them.

    What many leaders and directors learned in 2020 is that there is a gap between the perception and the reality of that trust. In addition, many discovered the congruency gap between what they say they are and what they can and do deliver. And faced with so much change, so quickly, many organisations went into free fall through their own congruency gaps.

    One thing is certain — trust has moved beyond being a “soft skill” or a nebulous feeling, to a solid, distinct, measurable, profitable and sustainable strategy that is being embraced by leaders around the world.


    Leaders and directors must focus on three things to become intentional and strategic as they manage the risk of the loss of stakeholder trust in an uncertain world:

    • Know and understand your Stakeholder Trust Map
    • Strengthen your Trust Value Chain
    • Develop trust-building and restoration skills within your organisation.

    1. Stakeholder Trust Map

    While each stakeholder trusts you for something different, there are commonalities between them. Finding the core things for which every stakeholder trusts you and ensuring they are cemented into everything you do is the fastest way to build and maintain trust.

    There is a buffer and a break point to trust. So do some stress testing. Ask the “what if?” questions. Knowing what the deal-breakers are for each stakeholder, and what level of elasticity you have, will allow you to make decisions with certainty.

    For example, many organisations learned just how flexible employees can be provided they have the systems, tools and processes to do their job. Communication, especially when the news is not good, is critical. It always has been, but in times of crisis, when things are uncertain, something is always better than nothing.

    Interestingly, for many, paying your people was more elastic than expected. Some took pay cuts or worked reduced hours while others took accrued leave in order to keep their jobs and ensure the survival of the organisation.

    Some leaders and directors still struggle with the concept of employees working from home. We hear these typical questions all the time — what if they don’t work all day, and take time out to help their children with their schoolwork? Or do some cooking? Or walk their dog?

    Deciding what you expect of your employees and communicating that, and conversely, finding out what they expect of you and your organisation, are keys to mapping employee trust. Are you an organisation that cares more about hours worked, clocking in and out, or are you more outcomes-driven, focused on outputs and outcomes for customers? Do your people need more flexibility in order to maintain balance and wellbeing at home and at work? How will you now define your organisational culture when the old definitions may not work anymore?

    Your Stakeholder Trust Map should be part of your strategy setting as it informs and flows from your vision, mission, purpose, values, brand promise, performance and risk measurement and management. It needs to be monitored, updated, and adjusted as both internal and external trust influence factors impact stakeholder expectations and needs.

    2. Trust Value Chain

    Like any chain, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Your Trust Value Chain is where trust is either built or destroyed, and follows a distinct and simple path:

    • Who you say you are and what you say you do
    • What you “sell” to all your stakeholders
    • How you deliver on all you sell
    • How you fix things that go wrong.

    A break in the chain creates a “congruency gap” and is where stakeholder trust falls. The stronger the chain, the stronger your performance. The Trust Value Chain is where trust and ethics interlink. Trust is built when the “who” and “what” aligns with stakeholder expectations and needs. Trustworthiness is determined by the “how” — the ethics, the moral principles that guide the behaviour and decisions of your people, which can be built into systems and processes to shape culture.

    The biggest break in the Trust Value Chain is the space between words and deeds — between what is said and what is done. In uncertain times — when external factors increase the pressure on how you deliver on all you say you do, when technology can create a sense of making the impossible possible, when the competition is fierce and the temptation to expand the brand promise to embrace aspiration is high — the greatest risk to your organisation is the widening congruency gap and the subsequent loss of stakeholder trust. Your Trust Value Chain and Stakeholder Trust Map should align, and leaders and directors should seek regular updates of both, using that information to drive decisions — from product launches, mergers and acquisitions, to tech expansion and investment in infrastructure.

    3. Develop trust-building and restoration skills

    Recognising the centrality of trust to success, leading organisations are developing the skills to understand the mechanics of trust, to track and measure it, to strategise for it, and to manage the risks associated with its potential loss.

    Some organisations merely dip their toe in the water with a workshop, or by measuring customer and/or employee trust as part of their annual surveys. However, others are developing chief trust officers, trust ambassadors or champions, and then equipping and empowering them to manage the increasing pace of change and the ever-present questions. For example: What if the people we work/interface with or seek to influence stop trusting us? What do we need to say and do, and stop saying and doing, to build, nurture and/or restore stakeholder trust?

    It’s a great place to start, but with the onward march of technology, trust questions don’t start and stop with people anymore.

    Some organisations are investing heavily in AI, blockchain technology and further automation of processes to manage the risk of misconduct and boost levels of trust. But as anyone who has ever been autocorrected by a digital assistant such as Siri, Cortana or Google knows, this opens up further questions. Do we trust the technology and the underlying algorithms? What about the technologies employed by our business partners, governments and regulators that interface with our systems and directly affect how we do business? What about the ability of our employees to sense-check the results of automated processes and implement timely changes to prevent catastrophes?

    So, as the world continues to grapple with uncertainty, and leaders and directors rework strategies to bridge gaps between purpose, values, culture and profit, we face a year filled with more questions than answers. At the core of this uncertainty lies the possibility of both failure and success. The key differentiator between the two outcomes is the ability to ask the right questions, make the right decisions and communicate those in a way that inspires the trust of all stakeholders.

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