Feeling nostalgic is almost a given these days. We’re either pining for carefree social gatherings, remembering family dinners fondly (forgetting any tensions, of course!) or walking by the gym thinking “one day, one day soon.”

One thing I’m nostalgic about is trust building. We seem to largely have released the whole idea into the wild, never to be seen again, especially if you’re a politician.

It wasn’t that long ago when leadership was ALL about trust building. The largest public relations firm in the world, Edelman, built an entire research practice around trust, positioning themselves as the firm to help clients build trust (yes, Edelman has a history of some terrible practices, but that’s beside the point).

For 20 years, they’ve released an annual trust barometer. The research measures trust in four societal institutions – government, business, NGO’s and media. This year’s report was released in January, before the pandemic, and even then, the results were grim:

  • Fifty-seven percent of the general population say government serves the interest of only the few.
  • Only about one-third of people believe business does a good job of partnering with NGOs or government.
  • None of the four institutions is seen as both competent and ethical.

Edelman points to “an alarming trust inequality.” There are now two different trust realities – wealthier, more educated, frequent consumers of news are more trusting while the majority of the “mass population” (about 83% of people) do not trust institutions to do what is right. In 2020, this is at an all-time high.

Now, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the trust barometer, it may be a good time to seriously ask, “is trust-building dead?” We should pause and ask the question, so that we can get back on track. Because there will be serious consequences if we don’t.

To try is human, to buy is business

Maybe the reason trust is at an all-time low is because the institutions have largely given up trying. And that is not acceptable.

Governments are now run by politicians who are openly and cynically campaigning for re-election with their base as soon as they take office. They begin on day one by including only their voters as constituents. There is not the slightest effort to govern for all or to represent diverse opinions. It’s a winner take all approach, rather than a “win over” approach.

Even worse, business is now deeply embedded in politics, picking political winners and making maximum donations to candidates in return for favours. Some groups of businesses are boldly proclaiming support for particular parties, seemingly unafraid of alienating customers. One can only assume they are holding out hope their investment will result in a return that overcomes any lost customers.

Social media is not a legitimate source of information

NGO’s are increasingly becoming the targets of political parties, continuing when those parties are elected to government. We’re seeing governments holding inquiries into NGO’s, restricting their ability to speak out on policies and even seeking to shut them down if they hold differing opinions.

Media has now been watered down significantly, with traditional media cutting back on investigative reporting, independent media picking up the slack and partisan media sowing confusion. We don’t know who to trust, who is even attempting to be neutral, or how media organizations are making editorial decisions.

Social media has overtaken all forms as the public’s preferred source of information, to disastrous ends. Edelman’s Trust Barometer doesn’t even have a measure for trust in social media.

Trust is running on empty

Overall, the barometer is sadly inadequate in 2020. It lacks a deep understanding of the challenge of governing. Its pro-business bias is clearly at play when it recommends CEO’s take the lead on building trust in society. And although there is a lot of rah-rah cheering on of employees (mostly the rogue ones!), it underestimates the power of NGO’s.

Nevertheless, it’s worth asking again, why have we given up on building trust? We need to get back to building trust in order to enable collaboration and get ourselves out of this mess.

If your government, in particular, is showing an unwillingness to even try to build trust, you should vote them out. Don’t reward behaviour designed to create winners and losers. Speak up about it and definitely don’t vote for those who, once elected, continue to run government like they’re running for the approval of only their voting base.

If both parties are doing it, vote for the one doing the least of it and work to change their minds about doing it in the future. There isn’t always a perfect choice on the ballot, but we can make the best of it.

Vote it out

As soon as elected, politicians need to put away their partisanship and run the government in a non-partisan way or suffer the consequences at the ballot box. That once was a given. Now, the non-partisan approach has been all but given away.

To stop even trying, is to bring about our own demise. Make trust a thing again. Or we’ll be further divided and defeated.

Miss Cranky Pants (aka Jody MacPherson) is a professional communicator, amateur politico, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and coffee addict who gets a little testy without regular caffeine. 

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