Where did all the trust go?

What’s the most important ingredient for business success? And the single thing without which no business can succeed? Trust. Trust is at the absolute heart of any relationship, large or small and without it failure is an inevitable consequence of whatever endeavour is undertaken. And it’s a big ask.

Recent failures of trusted company pension schemes, where workers have invested not just money but the hopes of a happy retirement; mis-sold payment protection insurance, where financial institutions willingly misled thousands of borrowers; social services failing to provide care for frail elderly people who paid their national insurance ‘stamp’ over a lifetime’s work – is it any wonder that trust is in short supply right now? And don’t get me started on Brexit, or indeed the current turmoil surrounding the US Presidential Elections.

In an environment where trust is thin on the ground, how can businesses and leaders engage to build a firm foundation from which to grow? The truth is that trust is about shared human experience, about interactions that deliver what they have promised and that truly engage. As agencies and as practitioners we build trust by the way we work with our clients, by keeping our promises and by being open and honest about what’s working (and what’s not).

As leaders, we build trust through authenticity of speech and action.  It’s all very well saying the right things but if you don’t do them, trust is lost. If you set yourself up as a listener and then you don’t listen (or act on what you’ve heard), it’s over for you.  Sounds really simple, doesn’t it, but it’s easier said than done. And it’s not black and white either.

The thing about trust is that it’s not infinitely flexible – but then again, it’s not so easily fractured. At its simplest, the bargain between employer and employee is based on trust that each will play their part from a transactional perspective, but when companies come under financial pressures and ask more of their people, the expectation is that trust is emotionally rather than fiscally driven. It’s a basic human need, to want to believe in others whether they are organisations or individuals, otherwise the world is a very lonely place indeed.

Perhaps then, the route to building trust as a leader, a manager and an employer, is to remember to be human above all else. That’s not simply about empathy, it’s about understanding people’s fears and frailties as well as their strengths. Trust is about predictability, reliability and confidence, about reassurance and integrity, but it’s also, and most fundamentally, about responsibility.

At its most basic, the crisis in trust afflicting our society is about responsibility or, more properly, the lack of it. At the heart of the client-agency partnership is an agreement that we take responsibility for delivering what we’ve promised. If we fail, then the partnership is up for re-negotiation. When we stand up as leaders, we take responsibility for our teams not just when it’s going well, but more importantly when it’s going wrong. You can’t buy it, you’ve got to earn it, and the best leaders I’ve worked with have it in spades. So the next time you’re faced with a colleague or a client who’s finding the going tough, take responsibility for working through whatever the issue is with them and trust will grow exponentially.

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