The U.S. Marines refer to it as a critical “intangible” of leadership. In this time of dual crises, McKinsey proclaims that its opposite – uncertainty – must be quickly settled. In a moment where people are recalibrating what is important to them, it is all-important. It is the currency that drives both recovery and societal stability. It is the element of trust.
How important is trust? The absence of trust creates painful uncertainty, and as McKinsey research recently found, “uncertainty is toxic…the objective now must be to crush uncertainty as soon as possible.” Why? As the McKinsey researchers continue: “people will only resume their lives when they believe they are safe, not when they merely hope so.”
The existing lack of trust also now impacts the viability of brands in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd and a now-universal demand for change. Additional recent research from the respected Edelman Trust Barometer shows that consumers (56% of those surveyed) believe that brands have a moral obligation to address racism. The same research showed that consumers (60% of those surveyed) will “buy or boycott a brand based on if and how it responds to current protests.” The research’s conclusion? “You gain trust by taking a stand.”
Trust may be intangible, but it certainly packs a punch. When trust levels are low and uncertainty reigns (fueled in part by economic recession), people and organizations react. Manufacturers conserve cash and reduce investments. Retail establishments tighten their belts because consumers slow or stop buying. Fearful consumers postpone buying beyond what is necessary.
Trust may be a bit intangible, but it’s real. PR professionals know that trust can be created, and uncertainty crushed. But trust-building requires hard work, honesty, transparency, and humility – a willingness to consider new ideas and new ways. It remains above all a dynamic process. One cannot go to the trust store and place an order. It takes courage, integrity, insight, and commitment to build and restore trust.
The impact of trust and the outcomes of the lack of trust can be measured. Edelman has been effectively measuring trust levels and outcomes for the past 20 years through its Trust Barometer.
What do we need to look at today, particularly as it relates to the ongoing pandemic? Edelman’s research found that “To increase trust, business should focus on solutions, not selling, with respondents calling for the private sector to collaborate with competitors, redefine their company’s purpose and goals around fighting the pandemic.” Brands must be focused on being part of the solution, helping fashion a place of societal safety.
And, as has been noted, brands must demonstrate their authentic support for positive societal change, as many now directly tie that to the value of the brand. Many brands have creatively engaged in this very solution to the benefit of all.
At the moment, many forces – particularly in social media – hammer and erode the foundations of trust. With that in mind, here are some thoughts to consider:
People – customers, employees, colleagues, supporters – must feel safe to recover economically and societally. As noted by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal and others, the first wave of the coronavirus crisis left in its wake profound instability. Noonan sums it up this way: “The shocked and cooperative citizens of March are the battered, skeptical citizens of June. They saw the inevitable politicization of the process. They saw the illogic and apparent capriciousness of many regulations. They suffered financially and saw little sympathy for their plight.” Government leaders must now pay special attention to the restoration of credibility and trust. Business leaders face the same challenge. With many people in recovery from the dual shocks of the coronavirus lockdown and the George Floyd tragedy, humility-fueled leadership needs to set the tone. Leaders must demonstrate a new attention and capacity to carefully listen before they act. Healthcare communication expert Brian Lee encourages leaders to inspire – “cause others to take action by example.”
Brand decency must come to the fore. The lockdown instantly burst general prosperity for millions. Then came Minneapolis and civil unrest. Now employees rethink daily what’s truly important to them. What was once critically important – an office and 9-5 working hours, for example – may now be regarded as disposable clutter. As a result, flashy messages with exaggerated claims of superior performance can now trigger brand-bruising responses that linger. A sense of brand decency, of authentic messaging built on careful listening to what’s going on can convey a much-needed sense of real belonging and fresh credibility.
Manage your reputation, or someone else will. Listening with humility represents a critical part of communication. The words of Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson speak across the decades: “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” Honest and sensitive communication is paramount (see brand decency comment above). There exist too many dynamic forces storming the walls to risk otherwise. Trust can be broken in seconds, sometimes without any apparent foundation of rationality. Fresh uncertainty can appear at any time. What does this mean for your company or organization? It means to consistently do things of public worth, demonstrate commitment to your values, manifest humility, and engage your customers, employees, and public in conversations. That is the right thing to do, and its byproduct will protect and strengthen your reputation – all in a spirit of open humility.
McKinsey predicts that people affected by the economic crisis may be miserable for months, even years. Miserable people are impatient. Leaders cannot be. Leaders know the value of intangibles like trust. They must act to demonstrate authentic leadership and create trust. It has to be real this time.
In the days and months ahead, building trust – the opposite of uncertainty – represents a top objective for any company, any government organization. As McKinsey research recently proclaimed: “when uncertainty subsides, confidence returns, and economic recovery unlocks.” As a public relations professional of long-time agency, academic faculty (Pepperdine University), and corporate communications counsel, this author has seen this come true time and again. Careful listening powered by humility will help us find real answers with real benefits across the spectrum.
One thing is for certain. Impactful new leaders will emerge as they commit to building trust in this time of painful crisis. Simon Sinek gives us a major reason to be counted among these leaders, the leaders who “choose to go first into danger, headfirst toward the unknown.” These reliable leaders make certain that their customers, employees, and supporters “feel sure they will keep us safe.” What is the surprising outcome of trustworthy leadership, according to Sinek? “We will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.”
What achievement could be more important for a leader? Leverage the currency of recovery – start building trust today!
Michael Snyder is managing principal of MEK, a public relations, marketing and change management firm in Carmel