Across much of the developed world, faith in institutions is rupturing. Modern day politics, with a regrettable tendency to provide impulsive, populistic solutions to problems of extreme complexity, contributes to an undercurrent of skepticism, which in turn feeds further unease and polarization, undermining confidence. In a host of democracies, leadership is variously described as broken, dysfunctional and unrepresentative. Little wonder then, that survey after survey reveals public trust to be at all-time low.
Regardless of one’s political opinions – passions even – this is deeply corrosive. For trust is essential to positive human relationships and one of the most valuable tools in building progressive societies. Without it there can be no exchange, no collective endeavor, no promises relied on…. and worse, no dreams shared, or secrets confided. Trust, in its broadest sense, is so ubiquitous that we seldom give it a thought. And yet, a moments reflection reveals its criticality to all that we are and achieve together.
There are obvious parallels to the business environment. It will be no surprise that trust is the single most important value associated with successful brands. When we’re working together in our businesses, we count on each other as surely as mountaineers rely on their partners to hold the rope. In my current organization – along with thousands more – we call out trust as a core value in our working practices, our relations with customers, and care for each other.
And that word ‘care’ seems essential to maximizing trust’s potential. We can cooperate with individuals and institutions for their utility – because, through experience, we have learned there is more to be won than lost – and we should never diminish the importance of this fact. But to view trust entirely as a profitable exchange, risks turning it into a sort of game theory, a slightly Machiavellian approach in which we weigh up possibilities and strategize to maximize our advantage.
‘Trust as care’ is something infinitely more powerful.
To trust because we care not only for the outcome, but also for the person or the process, creates a deeper, and stronger bond. When a master craftsman gives his trust to a young apprentice, he’s saying something that no invoice or profit and loss account ever could. And what’s more, the trainee knows it too! All of us who are business professionals, will have experienced equivalent moments, and be able to recall the boost to our self-esteem; the growth in confidence it gave us.
Confidence of course, is intimately linked to trust. Search any thesaurus and the two words will be listed side by side, along with faith, reliance, dependence. But trust is a verb as well as a noun. In trusting we making an active choice, the exercise of which is essential to allow others (and ourselves) to flourish. In other words, trust is something we give; confidence – and all that comes with it – is what is received.
Institutions and organizations ignore this insight at their peril. For no matter how attractive the alternatives may seem, in the long run, people care if their politicians lie, if their faith leaders are hypocrites; if the media invents its own news. And for those of us in mainstream commerce, the lesson is much the same. Customers no longer judge a business only by its products: they want to know how well we treat our people, whether we act responsibly, and if we pay our taxes.
In a mirror image of the virtuous circle I described earlier, if companies fail to engage with these concerns, then trust will be withheld and belief will die in its turn.
Simon Sinek’s recent book, The Infinite Game talks of the need for leaders to trust and care beyond the moment. Millennials – who soon will represent 50% of the workforce – are long-term thinkers; they want to belong and contribute to meaningful roles, and they want to work in cultures that allow for self-expression, that value their contribution and allow for risk-taking without fear of retribution. Leaders, Sinek asserts, have a special responsibility to set the tone in creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.
While Sinek’s position is something I believe we can intuitively subscribe to, it doesn’t require a management guru for us to learn this simple truth. Most of us know, as a matter of common sense and experience, that when teams show trust and care – when colleagues have each other’s back – then performance, motivation and retention, surely follow. Just as we know that organizations which fail to nurture their people will lose talent, commitment and ultimately, any meaningful purpose.
Furthermore, I’d argue it doesn’t require formal authority to make a difference. Whatever our circumstance or seniority, individual actions can and do have an impact. We can give trust – and show we care – by something as simple as passing the ball, waiting our turn, or listening respectfully to a colleague’s opinion. Trust, as we experience it, is a bi-lateral transaction – all it needs to flourish is two people, doing the right thing, by and for each other.
And hopefully we can all agree that a world with more trust is a better and more joyful place.