Big Picture

Trust – are we diluting its value?

We know intuitively that trust is a feeling – often a gut feeling. It cannot be purchased, outsourced, automated, created through a policy or process, or sent out as a message. Trust is an emotion, as it relates to the limbic system, which is also involved in motivation, learning, memory, and loyalty. Emotions are tied to our daily choices, so respecting and valuing them is important.

What reaction do you have when you hear the word ‘trust’? Is it a positive, warm feeling? Or are you in the other camp, like many people we have spoken with, where you feel the word ‘trust’ has become a commodity? It no longer holds the same value as it used to. The perceived abuse of the word in marketing campaigns and throwaway lines from people and organisations that are happy to promote trust but aren’t actually earning it.

Are you building trust?

In his book, The Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman defines trust as ‘choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions’.

Feltman writes about the potential value created through trust, but how ‘good work is being sabotaged by interpersonal conflict, political infighting, paralysis, stagnation, apathy, or cynicism.’

A key problem we have come across is when an organisation’s leadership expects trust from their employees without first proving themselves to be trustworthy.

When employees hear their organisation promoting itself as transparent, collegial or supportive, but their lived experience of it is different. They feel that their organisation is simply paying lip service to these values, or worse, trying to manipulate them. This can lead to distrust and suspicion, then to disengagement and disgruntlement, all of which pose a risk to your organisation.

There are so many formulas or checklists for building trust, but even if you theoretically follow all the right steps, you can still get it wrong. Stephen MR Covey, author of the book ‘The Speed of Trust’, challenges the assumption that trust is a social virtue, asserting that it is actually a hard-edge economic driver – that is, a learnable and measurable skill. Covey shares fundamental principles in his book, which can be utilised in building a pathway of confidence that can lead to trust. But the decision to “trust” still resides with the person.

Your motivation to create trust is a key factor. Those who exploit trust for manipulation, control and deception will often be discovered with heavy consequences. These can include reputational and financial damage, as well as elevate your organisational risk. Which is why no organisation wants to be headline because the dilution of trust. Statements like the ‘Royal commission erodes trust in banks: new poll’ were incredibly damaging, as was the loss of confidence in the banking sector with four out of five Australians believed the banks didn’t act ethically. Or when you see statistics from the 2020 Edelmen Trust Barometer Report, that gauges trust by asking “How much do you trust the institution to do what is right?”, within in Australia it was noted that “no institution is seen as either competent or ethical”. These examples show the dilution and even loss of trust within sectors.

What are you promoting?

Promoting a valuable image helps to lure customers, investors and talent. This is why many organisations promote their culture as a point of difference to the market, prospective employees and current employees. Their aim is to portray a favourable image, for example promoting trust, empowerment, inclusiveness. Employees are often drawn to organisations that promote similar beliefs and values as themselves.

A Griffith University study in 2018 found that the second-strongest influence on employee job satisfaction in Australia was management’s trust and empowerment – in other words, if you want satisfied employees, you must demonstrate your confidence or trust in them.

However, organisations dilute the value of trust, perhaps without even knowing. They send clear signals that they don’t trust their employees by imposing onerous systems, checks and approval processes. There have been cases where employees have interpreted such systems as an implication that they are negligent or incompetent, or worse, that management feel they have malicious intent.

Take this opportunity to reflect and consider if any of your intentions to build confidence and trust are being diluted. Think on the last time someone gave you misinformation, misled you, withheld important information that impacted your decisions or second-guessed what you did, did you continue to trust them?


Written by Lisa Sisson.

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Lisa Sisson
Lisa Sisson, author of ‘Risk Starts And Ends With People: Demystifying risk for executives and leaders’, is a sought-after speaker, mentor, consultant and author who helps executives and leaders who have become distracted and overwhelmed with ‘managing risk’, by demystifying and tackling risk within their organisation.


Lisa Sisson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.