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Restoring Business Trust and Trustworthiness

Bob Little 

March 9, 2018

Since the global economic crash of 2008, business commentators have noticed a general loss of public trust in organizations.

For example, Robert Phillips, co-founder of the consultancy Jericho Chambers, cites a recent survey which revealed that only 60 percent of millennials placed their trust in “business.” And, among those of Generation K – people born between 1995 and 2002, who grew up in an era defined by the crash – that figure fell to just six percent.

This loss of trust – and how it could be restored – was the topic of a business leaders’ discussion held at the London headquarters of the Financial Times, under the auspices of the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance.

The discussion began with Peter Montagnon, Associate Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, saying, “There’s a general ‘dislike’ of business. Executives are seen to be taking too much for themselves, and companies don’t seem to return what they should to society through taxation. Business trustworthiness won’t return until the public’s and business’s interests coincide.”

Building Trust

So, how can these interests be aligned? Alison Cottrell, CEO of the Banking Standards Board, says that, “Trust is given to you by others, but trustworthiness is something you develop for yourself. It’s a mix of honesty, reliability and confidence.”

“Trustworthiness is personal and reciprocal,” adds Robert Phillips. “Trust is invested in leadership. If leaders aren’t trustworthy, there’s a crisis. The key message for business should be, ‘Put people, not share value, first.’”

Leadership and Values

“Leadership is key,” agrees Montagnon. “In big organizations especially, values espoused by the leader must permeate throughout the organization. And there are processes, including L&D activities, to achieve this.”

Cottrell adds, “An organization’s culture is influenced by its leaders, as well as by the environment and the composition of the group. And this culture needs to be organization-wide, not just within the HR department.

“Every business has its own culture – that’s its ‘competitive advantage’ – but that culture should be within limits. Key to this is how boards listen to the views of all their stakeholders. Managers have to be active in seeking honest views, not just what they want to hear.”

Listening Exercises

Phillips believes that many organizations engage in “listening exercises,” but that they don’t listen properly. That’s partly because organizations are focused on their public image, via their share value. And this leads to “message droning,” which only contributes to falling levels of trust.

“Words like ‘integrity,’ ‘transparency’ and ‘trust’ are being devalued through message droning,” he says. “We need to turn from talking about these things to doing them.

“We’re making a mistake if, by ‘leadership,’ we mean ‘top-down command-and-controlling.’ We need activist leadership – and that’s characterized by showing vulnerability, not by imposing views on others. To have activist leadership you must also allow dissent.”

According to Nick Hindley, Global Learning and Development Manager at AVEVA, training on topics like ‘Presenting as Yourself’ – which he describes as “the most convincing way to deliver any message” – and ‘Providing a Confidential Outlet for Employees’ can help to increase trust.

“As an L&D professional, it’s important that you act to address these issues,” Hindley says. “It’s vital that workers’ confidence is maintained. And it’s important to provide absolute confidentiality within a training environment.”

“Businesses need to manage their own image and trustworthiness,” adds Cottrell. “Otherwise everyone’s ruled by the ‘lowest common denominator.’”

Investing in People

Richard Lowe, Director of Hewlett Rand, believes that the most “trusted brands” are those that invest in their people. These organizations understand that a competent, highly skilled workforce is an enabling factor.

“As L&D specialists, we play a vital role in strengthening the foundations of trust,” he says. “A competent and skilled workforce can exceed customer expectations and protect a brand against reputational risk. These managers and staff know what to do, when to do it, and how to protect the integrity of their brand values.”

So, to build trust between leaders, departments, teams, and individuals, and to meet the needs of customers and regulators, L&D professionals can:

  • Design training programs, content, and performance tools that meet quality standards, processes, regulatory obligations, service level agreements, business goals, and KPIs.
  • Facilitate leadership and team awaydays that clarify expectations, align goals, and define role accountabilities. 
  • Design team-building and development activities that explain team psychological and working preferences, and draw on team members’ behaviors and strengths to build mutual respect, trust and high performance.
  • Create coaching and mentoring frameworks that develop talent by introducing new strategies and skills.

How do you build trust within your organization? And, how do you project your trustworthiness to the wider world? Share your tips in the Comments section, below…

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