The CCA Trust Series 4 – Trust and Institutions

Trust shapes who we believe, who we follow, the relationships we form, and the social media we consume. It shapes our work and financial decisions and our confidence in leaders and institutions.

The CCA Trust Series 4 – Trust and Institutions

Trust shapes who we believe, who we follow, the relationships we form, and the social media we consume. It shapes our work and financial decisions and our confidence in leaders and institutions.

Where trust is strong, certainty is strong, and along with it, the path to free-flowing conversations, ideas, and ultimately, growth and productivity. Similarly, when there is a withdrawal of trust, that which was certain becomes more fragile. Tentative. Clouded with suspicion. And that which flowed freely is stifled. Generative action is derailed, mired in bottlenecks of legality for the sake of protecting our mistrust.

In this instalment of the CCA Trust Series, we examine the impact of our trust (and mistrust) of institutions – primarily business and government – and how they have diminished our ability to flourish in different contexts.

Where are we now?

In a trend consistent with a more general polarisation in our society, business and government have experienced a considerable deterioration in the trust afforded them.

Some of the findings of the recent Edelman Trust Barometer confirm this disparity. Globally, 62% of the 32,000 respondents established business as a most trusted institution, with NGOs following behind (59%) and government in third place, with only 51% considering them trustworthy(1). None of these findings is flattering for the institutions being considered.

In the local context, there was a 9-point disparity between non-government institutions and the government, with 54% trusting institutions as opposed to just 45% placing confidence in the government.

Globally, government leaders could have fared better, with only 41% trusted compared with neighbours (63%), co-workers (73%) and scientists (76%)(2). Implicit within this mistrust is an inability to progress with broad support even when motives are pure and the desire to benefit constituents is genuine. Such is the distrust across sections of society that the motives of institutions would be questioned and likely undermined based on prevailing polarisation.

It’s easy enough to point the finger at polarisation for stymying public progress, but it’s more pertinent to ask how we got here.

While trust in government institutions in our context enjoyed a two-decades-high resurgence early in the stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, this surge was mostly short-lived. Moreover, there is a growing disparity in trust between the informed and the mass public, partly due to rampant growth in misinformation, disinformation, and fake news(3).

Adding to the complexity, the prevalence of distrust grows in the lowest-income quartiles. For example, in Australia, 43% of those in this low-income bracket trusted the government in the survey period compared to 54% in the highest-income quartile.

Another finding that resonated with these broader findings was the robust levels of trust placed in smaller businesses to do what is right when compared with large or government-owned companies. For example, 67% of Respondents trusted a family-owned business to do the right thing, compared with 50% for a state-owned enterprise.

So, what now?

The polarisation of opinions, the deepening of mistrust, and the weakening of the perceived integrity of large institutions and government reverberate across society in various ways. Prejudice and discrimination, the slowing of economic development, and more personal implications such as safety and financial security are outcomes of this polarisation.

The picture is pessimistic and, based on the last few years, the trend is not our friend. While it may be simplistic to point the finger at particular institutions as being responsible for this erosion of trust, it is simply an echo of a deeper malaise. Our societal polarisation finds easy expression in public institutions.

Turning a ship is slow work. There is no easy solution to building trust in an environment where there is little. Our level of trust always affects two outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down, the rate of progress goes down, and the price of progress goes up. When trust goes up, speed goes up, and cost goes down.

Yet economic progress is not the only incentive to grow trust. As humans, we desire trust. Circumstances may push us to suspicion and scepticism, but these are usually from places of pain – a reaction to an abuse of trust.

Is there a way forward?

Rebuilding trust is not easy, and while our mission is not to devise a prescription for ‘fixing trust issues within every institution’, those within them are not impotent.

There are established ways of building trust that Creating Communities has researched and used successfully: when trust is broken, re-engage, listen, agree on the next steps; do what you say you’ll do; communicate when issues arrive; and keep communicating.

Has the last decade’s rise of social media and algorithms shaping content made this harder? Yes. Are there solutions in this current climate? Also yes. This is the challenge of the moment. The solution is a nuanced version of a timeless response: keep showing up and being accountable.

Any organisation or collective seeking to build or restore confidence must intentionally focus on four areas: humanity, transparency, capability and reliability. (4)

Humanity addresses the perception that the organisation genuinely cares for those it serves experience and well-being by demonstrating empathy, kindness, and fairness. But, more significantly, it acts and makes decisions in response to this understanding.

Transparency indicates that the organisation openly shares information, motives, and choices related to policy, budget, and decisions in straightforward language—not only the good news but also the tougher news. When organisations are transparent with challenging information, there is growing trust that good news is not flowering the truth.

Capability reflects the belief that the organisation can create high-quality programs, products and services and effectively meet expectations. Delivering to a deadline and budget seems ground-breaking in an environment where blowouts of time and budget seem the norm.

Reliability shows that the organisation can consistently and dependably deliver high-quality programs, services, and experiences to those it serves across platforms and geographies. ‘Do what you say you will do’ is not only a personal maxim. It applies equally to institutions.

What next?

Trust can be built and sustained by demonstrating two foundational attributes—delivering on the promises and assurances that we make with consistency, competence, and good intent. Even when a failure occurs, there is a more generous understanding if a foundation of transparency, humanity, capability and reliability prevails.

While this series does not provide a ‘how-to’ to remediate the eroded reputations of institutions and organisations within them, CCA is cognisant that delivering compelling shared outcomes in the community is frequently fuelled or thwarted by the prevailing trust in these bodies.

We all need solid and trustworthy institutions. They facilitate social progress and collective impact and open a more straightforward path towards building people’s skills, attributes and attitudes to live rich and full lives connected together in community.

(1) Edelman, “2023 Edelman Trust Barometer,” January 19, 2023.
(2) Edelman, “2023 Edelman Trust Barometer,” January 19, 2023.
(3) Edelman, “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer,” January 19, 2020.
(4) William D. Eggers, Bruce Chew, Joshua Knight, RJ Krawiec, Mahesh Kelkar, “Rebuilding Trust in Government”, March 19, 2021

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