Restoring Trust

May 31, 2020

The economy isn’t the only thing that needs rebuilding

By Graham Bruce, senior global executive consultant


One of the major “victims” of the pandemic currently sweeping the globe is trust. Trust in others, trust in governments, institutions, information, medicines, science, justice, even blind trust that “everything will be alright” and normality will be resumed.
Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright said “You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible”. Trust is a voluble and precious thing, notoriously difficult to attain, yet so easy to lose.

The dictionary defines trust as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”. However reliability, truth or ability are concepts difficult to identify in today’s world of quick fixes, fake news and “influencers”. Are you reliable because you have 150,000 likes? Trust is built or destroyed through experience over time. In certain cultures many meetings over endless cups of tea are often necessary before the true business subject is even addressed.

Trust is indeed built over time and yet it may take only a single painful experience to destroy an entire foundation of trust. A clear example happened last week when the British Government’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings was forced to explain why he drove 260 miles to his parent’s home during lockdown, while suffering from Covid 19 symptoms, allegedly contravening lockdown rules, but definitely ignoring all health advice and recommendations that he had helped produce, and that the Government had been publishing for weeks.  

As a result of his action, and the attempts to cover it up, all trust in the Government’s message to stay at home, to avoid travel, and to protect the NHS and others dissipated overnight, and the government’s strategy to protect the population was seriously undermined.
It may seem like a simple affair yet, in the UK, the immediate after effect of this apparently minor event is that a You Gov poll today shows the Conservative party has dropped 9% in the public’s intention to vote. The biggest drop in public confidence in the government in 10 years.
Trust in their advice has been significantly eroded, and once eroded, will be difficult to regain. The beaches and parks are crowded, the belief being that if someone in a senior position can break the rules, everyone can.

The common saying rings true – trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. Take a piece of blank paper and crumple it, it will never be pristine again, as much as you try to smooth out the creases. Can we trust our leaders’ advice – wear a mask, don’t wear a mask; take hydroxychloroquine, don’t take hydroxychloroquine; isolate, don’t isolate; let herd immunity develop and so on ad nauseam. Can we trust the information we read on Twitter which has recently  added warnings that President Trump’s tweets may mislead? Who should we trust? And why?

In an increasingly individualistic world we choose what news we want in our newsfeeds, what notifications on our phones, what programs to see on Netflix, even what science we want to believe. With burgeoning social media, people living in the same house may never see or read the same things ever – which was not the case when one newspaper was delivered to the house and a family chose between four or five channels on the television. With such diversity of information input, it is practically impossible to achieve a common output.

Anton Čechov

So, how do we establish real trust, both personally and professionally, in this febrile new world? There is no easy answer, but factors such as experience, actions (rather than words), and results, are ways to begin to re-establish trust, but all of them take time. Trust is built with consistency – years of consistent results guarantee a product, service or even a relationship.

From a business point of view trust comes only after years of these consistent results. We are not referring to financial results here, but guaranteed technical specifications, quality, quantity, delivery, and performance results every time.
Do you stop and think twice before taking an Aspirin? Of course you don’t, you trust the brand, but will the UK trust the Turkish manufacturer of PPE again, or Spain the Chinese manufacturers of substandard masks? The details of these specific cases are in the public domain.

In this uneasy age of elevated scrutiny and analysis,  trust in global supply chains is being eroded daily, fostering calls for more manufacturing, previously outsourced, to be brought back to the country of origin.

As a society we will need time to build up trust again, but this requires a constant effort on our part. Interestingly, there is an archaic definition in the dictionary of the word trust which means to allow credit to (a customer) – “all persons are forbid to trust sailors” is the amusing example given.

Personally I want to live my life trusting in others, rather than being suspicious of everything and everybody, this requires me, as an individual, to take positive action and extend that credit, to invest my trust. There may be disappointment in some cases, and there will not be a 100% success rate in all likelihood, but as Hemingway says “the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.” (Selected Letters 1917–1961, edited by Carlos Baker) – and that implies action from each and every one of us.
Rebuilding trust is a collective responsibility.


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