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  • Nick Smith

Trust me - change has a trust problem


It’s very difficult to engage with current UK political goings-on without seeing an increasing lack of ‘trust’ as key and damaging to our political and broader shared life. That got me and colleagues thinking about trust, its role in change, and how it can be rebuilt when lost – something we’d all encountered in change initiatives. A good starting point proved to be Edelman who for each of the last 22 years have published a Trust Barometer - a global survey of levels of trust and how they’re shifting globally. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer was published in the past month, and paints a concerning picture both globally and for the UK. For example:

  • Globally, trust in Government, Media, Business and NGOs has declined since 2020, with only Business still being trusted (rather than distrusted, or viewed neutrally) – though in the UK, however, business now falls into the ‘distrusted’ category.

  • 63% believe business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations – although levels of trust in ‘my own business’ are higher than general levels of trust in business leaders.

  • Those on higher incomes display greater trust than those on lower incomes (with the UK having the 3rd biggest gap of the 28 countries surveyed). That’s a particular concern when we need the trust of less well-paid front-line teams and a much bigger problem from a societal perspective.

  • And all this is in a context of increased levels of societal anxiety about each of job loss, climate change, cyber-attacks, threats to freedom, and experiencing prejudice or racism.

Parochially focusing on change, it’s not controversial to suggest that those leading change need the trust of those they’re looking to lead through change. In the far-from-rare situations where trust has been replaced by suspicion, or worse, people will not follow, will not engage. Without trust, no matter how we describe the very probable benefits of a proposed change, what’s in it for those impacted, we’re unlikely to be believed. And, as a result, if that persists, we won’t get the engagement and commitment that underpin effective change adoption and embedding. It’s easy to lose trust, too. Frequent movements to the right in change schedules due to new technology not being ready; unfortunate past over-commitments; inadvertent under-delivery or over-promising; shifts in Government funding; even bad experiences in previous organisations can all lead to difficult-to-avoid lost trust.

So, how do we get it back? We had an interesting discussion about this with some of the wider Epion team, identifying two key (and not entirely mutually incompatible) options. First, work hard on transparent and honest engagement, recognising that there are reasons for scepticism, putting in place channels for two-way communication, and more. This is probably the default approach – effectively seeing the trust challenge as one of engagement. We concluded this tends to be pretty ineffective, regardless of the quality of our engagement activity and the depth and seriousness of our intent.

The second approach comes at things very differently. It says (and I’m putting it starkly), don’t even try to re-establish trust before embarking on change – it won’t work. Rather, use the change itself to rebuild trust, looking to establish a virtuous circle with every piece of evidence that you can be trusted (that things will be as you said they would - good and bad) leading to greater levels of trust in what you say. This means that identifying and delivering visible and impactful quick wins becomes really important – as does integrating evidence from past changes of promises being delivered.

And, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. The two approaches can go hand in hand – indeed better, more transparent engagement may be required to make sense of the evidence that rebuilds the trust. But the key point is that greater emphasis on, and better execution of, honest two-way engagement is almost certainly not enough in itself to re-establish lost trust.

And, of course, there’s still the risk that your evidence will be written off as ‘fake news’ – and we know where that can take you. That warrants a blog to itself though.

Thanks to Angela, Frances, Karl, Nadia, and Sam for the discussion and pointers to Edelman and Bridges.

The Edelman Trust Barometer and its survey findings are copyright Edelman Trust Institute and Daniel J Edelman Holdings, Inc

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