When the Bank Of England started issuing paper bank notes in 1694, every note carried the words ‘I promise to pay the bearer of this note five pounds’ (or whatever the value of the note was). It meant that you could trust the Bank Of England to pay that amount in gold or silver if you took the note to them. It was a revolution for commerce. Paper notes, backed by trust and belief in the bank’s promise, made transactions quicker and easier in the fast developing British economy of the 1700s.
In any social activity, trusting that others will keep their word underpins the cohesion and success of groups. As social animals, humans have a natural, neurobiological disposition to trust. Oxytocin is the brain’s chemical messenger that fuels and lubricates trust behaviour. It is a basic human response enabling the creation of strong and durable social networks. We tend to err on the side of trust rather than distrust as the social benefits tend to be higher for both parties and outweigh the risks. However, research shows that if our trust is broken or betrayed, it becomes much harder for us to trust again, to take risks, to be honest about mistakes etc. The previously trusting person needs to overcome the pain of being let down or exploited and it’s here that oxytocin helps by dampening the brain’s threat alarm system in the amygdala. Trust is a switch that turns on powerful behaviours and emotions, such as openness, honesty, respect, love, courage and commitment. When the system is fused by threat or pain it can take time to repair.
In the corporate world, trust should be seen as a company-wide issue and a fundamentally important component of managing a successful company. If a manager loses the trust of his or her team, even good faith efforts by the offender to restore the relationship are met with scepticism and suspicion. The result is often a self-fulfilling prophecy where every move the other person makes is seen as even more evidence that justifies that initial decision to distrust them. The end result can be management not trusting their employees, employees not trusting their management or their suppliers, and customers not trusting the businesses or their brands. It sounds dramatic but currently large sections of business are reeling under a huge loss of trust by the public and customers, including the energy companies, financial services, pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, media and charities.
There is a wider trend of distrust, permeating society as a whole; the collapse of BHS and loss of pension funds, the VW emissions scandal, the banking Libor fixing scandal, the Hillsborough report on policing, politicians’ expenses etc. It adds up to an overriding atmosphere of suspicion, unfairness, scepticism and resentment of authority figures and major brands.
It’s clear that loss of trust has major implications for business and brands but what can managers do to help rebalance the trust deficit? They need to develop sophisticated planning around customer engagement based on honesty and integrity, as well as actively looking to build trust into the internal corporate culture. Employee engagement is one of the first casualties of a lack of trust. During live corporate events, the performance of leaders is not just about being engaging and entertaining and keeping the attention of a corporate audience, it is a vital opportunity to build and reinforce real trust between the audience and the strategic direction and thinking of the leaders. We need to anticipate how any session or presentation will be interpreted. We need to ensure that our message is authentic, relevant and deliverable for the audience.
Trust must be near the top of the corporate agenda – from the board room down – and never taken for granted. Trust is easy to spot in a corporate culture. Distrust is more difficult to uncover as it’s hidden by managers and staff among selective truths and partial information. Being on the lookout for a trust deficit is the responsibility of all good managers and when a company has a trusting culture, it is more likely to have engaged, trusting employees, happy customers and success.