Trust: a small word but huge impact

If there’s one word that sits at the heart of this whole crisis, it’s trust. It’s a small word, but its impact is huge as it underpins almost everything we do, is woven into the fabric of how our society is structured and the relationships and interactions we engage in on a day-to-day basis. In their fascinating article, ‘Begin with Trust’, Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss (Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020) suggest there are three core drivers of trust: logic, authenticity and empathy.  We trust those in whom we have faith in their judgment and competence (logic), who are genuine in their interactions with others and consistent in behaviour (authenticity) and who we feel care about us (empathy). Freis and Morriss argue that when trust is lost it can almost always be traced back to a breakdown in one or more of these drivers.

When we think about trust we also need to take into account the context. Fries and Morriss argue that trust is one of the most critical forms of capital leaders have. In usual circumstances political and business leaders need to build trust to gain support and followership, even more so now as we live in an increasingly complex, fast-paced, changing environment. Throw in a global pandemic and the core drivers of trust – logic, authenticity and empathy – take on even more significance. Here’s why.

The emergence of Covid-19 in humans was unexpected; the speed at which it spread and the devastation it wreaked and continues to wreak on a global scale is nothing short of terrifying. Around the world entire countries and their leaders have been plunged into ‘panic mode.’

From a psychological perspective, in states of panic and uncertainty we need reassurance, regular communication and adequate information to help us manage and negotiate our anxiety. And of course, we need to trust our political leaders. We need to trust in their judgment and competence to deal with the situation (logic), to trust that they are being open and transparent (authenticity) and to trust that they care and are striving to keep us safe, both physically and economically (empathy). Not an easy task for leaders, by any means, especially when we factor in party politics and the inherent tension in keeping people physically safe and the economy functioning when tackling a new virus.

The lockdown measures meant trust was even more important. Asking the public to make the sacrifices required meant we had to trust that they were necessary from the perspective of the three core drivers:  logic, authenticity and empathy.

Initially, there was more trust than distrust as we entered lockdown. Now, however, it is safe to say that trust has been eroded. There are increasing criticisms of the government’s decision-making from experts such as scientists and health workers (logic), more examples of people flouting lockdown restrictions yet the number of deaths continues to rise, mixed messages regarding the easing of lockdown amid growing concern that we are not being told the truth but being fed political spin (authenticity). Then, of course we had the Cummings fiasco, and arguably the breakdown of the third driver of trust: empathy (lack of care).

Setting aside politics and morals, the way the Cummings situation was handled is interesting from a psychological perspective and sheds light on what matters in terms of building trust once it has been lost, which arguably the government have failed to do.

Critical in these situations is the need to reassure and maintain public confidence by taking responsibility and accountability for the mistake. Saying ‘sorry’ is the first step to rebuilding trust. We’ve never heard it.

Next is the importance of being honest – tell us what really happened and make it believable so we don’t have to rely on stories in the media. We were given one account but it very quickly became apparent that this was not necessarily the truth. Thus continues a breakdown in the drivers of authenticity and logic.

The lack of genuine care shown (empathy) for the transgression further creates a barrier to rebuilding trust as it shows a contempt and disrespect for both the guidelines and the public. Trust can never exist where there is no respect or care.

What happens over the coming weeks and months remains to be seen but you can be sure that trust will be absolutely essential for effectively managing the transition to a ‘new normal.’ Both political and business leaders need to place trust at the heart of their decision-making and understand it’s crucial psychological importance for their success.

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