Is anyone else sick of the the alarming messages we are seeing about important topics these days? Whether on the topic of beating COVID-19, global political dynamics or climate change, it seems things are either dire and dystopian or fabulous and we’ve ‘turned the corner.’
I have been around long enough to expect shades of gray on most topics and am so disappointed by the jarring nature of good news/bad news pendulums delivered by too many leaders. Somehow, we have got to train ourselves back to the reality of how l-o-n-g it takes to work through gnarly problems. How vexing it can be to see potential breakthroughs only to realize that achieving them will take immense resources, or courageous realignment of political priorities. And then we will need to find the political will and practical approaches to actually commit those resources or take those political steps. And I believe we need organizational leaders to be part of taking these responsibilities in each of our communities, on each of the challenging issues we face.
As I reflect on why and how we have devolved into such unimpressive discourse (to say nothing of decision-making), I land on one of my oft-visited topics: trust. We have suffered devasting declines in the extent to which people find the institutions around them trustworthy. No sector has escaped the trend: media outlets, public officials at every level, Wall Street and corporate leaders collectively, law enforcement, higher education, even philanthropy.
Interestingly, individuals will give higher scores on trustworthiness to specific leaders: the CEO of their company, or the mayor of their town, the governor of their state. And there are important things to take away from that distinction.
Trust is built by meeting expectations over time. Say what you are going to do; then do it. After a few repetitions of that experience, a level of trust is formed. Over longer spans of time, we learn that trusted entities can even make a mistake, or miss a goal, and still retain trust. Once established, trust has capacity to show some tolerance for human error. That is the good news.
The bad news is that, again, whole categories of leaders in our society have seen their trustworthiness decline. And rather than striving to rebuild trust by carefully setting expectations and then meeting those expectations, it seems it is easier to opine on what is wrong and demonize – or to catch the wave of a positive develop and jump to the front of the crowd to declare victory. Soon, of course, the trend lines change, and expectations are yet-again not met. And trust declines.
There are great opportunities right in front of us to reverse this trend. Some individual corporate leaders are sticking their necks out with commitments related to equity and to climate change. Big gnarly challenges that they cannot actually solve on their own. But by focusing attention on building trust in their leadership, they can also rebuild in institutions more broadly. Same for individual public sector leaders; same for leaders in media, in public safety.
It took time to create the devolving phenomena we are experiencing now. It will take time to rebuild institutional trust. Let’s get started.