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Businesses are more trusted than governments – but don’t get complacent

10th February 2023

The world is becoming harder for everyone to navigate, but as often happens in difficult times, it’s the everyday person who suffers the most.

The cost of living crisis – with its rising prices, rising inflation, and falling living standards – is set against the backdrop of a deteriorating political culture, while polarising social issues are everywhere on our feeds and screens. 

So who can the everyday person trust when things seem so out of their control? And why do they seem to trust businesses more than their own governments?

Recently, global communications firm Edelman released its 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer – the company’s 23rd edition of the annual report that surveys more than 32,000 people across 28 countries.

This temperature check on public perspectives on everything that’s been going on intrigued me – as a business leader I want to know the real anxieties and emotions of my workforce and beyond… but I quickly found it makes for stark reading.

Edelman Trust Barometer 2023

Only 40% of respondents say they think their families will be better off in ten years than they are now (down from 50% last year).

And if the picture is bleak in the economy, it is darker still when it comes to social issues. Only 20% of people surveyed say they would want to have a co-worker with different opinions from their own. Meanwhile, just 30% would even want to help someone who disagreed with them if they were in need.

That shows us the extent of the polarisation in our society, but it also reveals that many people are unable to see much hope for the future.

In my view, a lot of this boils down to trust.

And in the Edelman Trust Barometer, we see that in almost all areas of the world, trust in business far outweighs trust in government.

What is trust in business?

Graph courtesy of Edelman Trust Barometer 2023

It would be natural here to rhyme off a list of reasons – from the expenses scandal to Partygate and Brexit – to explain why trust in politicians is sinking fast. But it’s important to understand what ‘trust’ actually is.

I’ve looked at the issue of trust in more detail in an earlier blog post, where I argue that trust isn’t earned, it’s granted.

In it, I broke down the trust equation, which shows that trust isn’t simply the sum of someone’s credibility and reliability. It’s about weighing up what you already know about that credibility, but then cross-referencing that with the likelihood that this person may be acting in a self-serving way.

So, the more evidence you have that a person is out for themselves, the less likely they are to be trustworthy.

And looking at this way, isn’t it obvious why polarisation breeds a lack of trust? Because it’s become normal to think the other side is looking out for number one.

Is business up to the task?

Image courtesy of Edelman Trust Barometer 2023

But then why do businesses score higher than governments in the trust stakes? Shouldn’t businesses score lower if they’re the ones with something to sell?

The answer is they score higher precisely because they do have something to sell. But that will only continue if businesses don’t fall into the trap that politicians are already failing to get out of.

It doesn’t take any searing insight to see that public services are crumbling, or that third spaces like youth clubs and libraries have closed. These are firmly in the domain of the government to provide and are highly visible on your local high street.

Now, after the double whammy of Covid lockdowns and rising inflation, pubs and cafes are shuttering, too.

Political leaders can tell us they’re leading for the country, but – as I said in my 2023 outlook post in January – we can see for ourselves that difficult economic decisions are being kicked like a can down the road. Presumably, until the next election takes place.

Businesses are different, brands have something to sell you. But, of course, you already know that. The difference is that they’re explicit about it from the start.

On the other hand, those brands that firmly state their purpose and the impact they want to have on the world are the ones that score well in the equation. Yes, they want to turn a profit. But if their actions align with their purposes, it makes it much easier to trust them.

Excuse the cliche, but you have to walk the walk.

How can businesses do better?

Don’t get me wrong – businesses and business people aren’t perfect.

Immoral practices have dented trust in countless sectors and will continue to do so. 

But what matters is doing things in the right way. Businesses need to remember they are dealing with humans, not robots, and act with compassion.

In the end, no one cares what you say you’re going to do. They care what you actually do. Purpose is great, but impact is vital.

We’ve seen what happens when governments act against their word. It’s now up to businesses to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes.

Read more about the trust equation and how to gauge trustworthiness here.

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