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The Coming Loss of Trust

Originally published on LinkedIn on February 5, 2022

A few years ago the entire leadership class at my workplace underwent training in transformation leadership. The key takeaway was that change is built on trust and that trust should be assumed not earned. Leaders who show trust will be more likely to cultivate the kind of confidence, motivation, feedback and teamwork required to succeed. Therein, it seems, we have a problem.

The recent Edelman Trust Barometer, Cycle of Distrust, reported that “Distrust is now society’s default emotion,” with 64% of respondents saying that “people are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on”. Nearly two thirds (63%) of people believed that business leaders purposely try to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations, only marginally better than government leaders (65%) or journalists (67%).

If those numbers are concerning, we might yet look back on them with nostalgia. There is a good risk that trust will decline even further. A key reason, likely not yet reflected in the data, are the ways many of our most high profile leaders have responded to the dominant experience of our time, the pandemic. Three ways in particular stand out.

First, it’s now clear that the major policy interventions - the ones that required unprecedented sacrifices from the public, like lockdowns, masks, social distancing and vaccination - have not worked. Take vaccines. Initially promoted as “the scientific cavalry coming over the hill,” and a “modern miracle,” they turned out to protect against neither infection nor transmission, nor against record high numbers of serious cases. Israel, the most vaccinated country and Covid’s “world’s lab” according to Pfzier CEO Albert Bourla, just passed its highest count of daily deaths. Africa, the world’s least vaccinated continent, has had the best Covid outcomes of all. How will you feel the next time someone claims their solution is “95% effective”?

Second, we now know that many of the policy responses were built on as much verbal dexterity as scientific grounding. “Infection” changed in meaning from actual illness to a positive test - leading us to test healthy people en masse. Asymptomatic transmission changed from something that has “never been a driver” to one that made up “25-45%” of infections - leading us to lock down whole populations. “Herd immunity” was redefined by the WHO, “vaccine” by Merriam-Webster and the CDC. By repeated comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu, the term “pandemic” itself was transformed, being coated with an unearned sheen of panic. In fact, the four previous pandemics of our lifetimes (1957, 1968, 1977 and 2009) were mild - it was said of the 1968 ‘Hong Kong flu’ pandemic that “few people who lived through it even knew it occurred”. It’s ironic, if unsurprising, that even “facts” have gone from being, well, facts, to mere ”statements of opinion”.

Third, many leaders have failed to show a key facet of leadership, that is adaptability to changing facts. Take masks. In his new book, Unmasked, Ian Miller provides a devastating critique of the mainstream narrative on masks. Originally, most leaders said masks were ineffective. Later, without any corresponding change in evidence, they claimed masks were a “game changer” that could reduce transmission by up to 85%. Going into 2022, most have kept that position, despite falsifying evidence now being overwhelming. As Miller laments, “the lack of humility and inability to acknowledge or correct mistakes has proven to be a recurring issue among the expert community”.

The common thread that runs through all this is a lack of trust. People could not be trusted to understand or behave appropriately, so facts were distorted, suppressed, omitted or censored to conform to a simpler, more cogent and easily manageable message. That made sense in the early phases of the pandemic, when much was unclear. As time goes by, though, the virtue of message management degrades with accelerating speed, corrosive of leadership, cancerous of trust. Much of the public has not yet caught up with the changing evidence. But when they do, there will surely be a reckoning. Anticipating that, leaders should consider now how they can help rebuild trust.

One important way is to speak to the issues most important to their people. According to Edelman’s report, nearly 60 percent of consumers buy brands based on beliefs while 6 in 10 employees choose a workplace based on shared values and expect their CEO to take a stand on issues important to them, most notably: jobs and the economy, tech and automation, wage inequality and climate change (Covid19 vaccination ranked number 8). And they tend to give their own leader more credit for doing so compared with leaders in general. Therein lies the opportunity. Trust isn’t dead. It’s a perennial. Whatever’s happened in the past, there will always be an abiding lust for trust just waiting to be activated. More than ever before, employees will be looking to their CEO and local leadership in search of trust. And as effective leaders know, the surest way to win trust is to first give it away.

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