According to recent studies, TRUST is eroding. Trust in businesses, employers, governments, journalism, democracy, science and technology …  and even in our fellow human beings, has taken a blow. Lack of trust has negative impact on business and on society – a downward spiral of decreased productivity, innovation, and the decline of our collective wellbeing.

Sound harsh? It is.

Trust is vital to the health of our society, as it is to the success and wellbeing of our companies. Whether you’re a startup, or a well-established organization, there is no doubt that “trust” helps boost morale among employees, but it also fosters healthy and productive relationships (between you and anyone that touches your business). Healthy (or trusting) relationships are the fabric that bind together any great company, and encourage creativity, efficiency, and innovation.

The good news is, as business leaders, we can help rebuild trust. But, like most things of value, it must be earned. No, we can’t buy it, and we can’t just write it into our boilerplates or promotional messaging. Trust has to be built into our behavior – into the code of ethics we work by. And it often takes time.

And, what builds trust? Let’s take a look at companies that have earned trust, and how.

Earlier this week, Reputation Institute released its 10th Annual Global RepTrak – a worldwide study ranking companies by reputation (or trustworthiness). Topping that list this year is Lego, followed by Walt Disney, then Rolex. What gives them the top spots? Upon closer look, it’s a combination of things. While the companies have had to maintain high marks for innovation, perhaps the most interesting and important criterion was CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility. In other words, they are perceived as ethical, and with a “sharpened focus on purpose and the social impact of their business.”

The human touch

Of the top 10 companies on the RepTrak list, only three are Big Tech. They got marks for innovation, reinvention, “meaningful purpose,” and strengthened connection with their customer… Why, then, are more BigTech players not on top? According to many, it’s due to the adtech model – inherently flawed because of its disregard for and lack of humanity. In fact, in many interactions, customers are not treated like human beings, but rather as data points. Targeting, retargeting, exploiting customer data, opaque terms and conditions … are all too much a part of how things are done in our digital world. Reaching the buyer, in other words, is not often done through personal connection or with a human touch, but automated, using algorithms, bots, etc. We all know, as consumers, that a fully automated approach is annoying at best. (How many hate the fact that you can never get a human being on the line for support?) While we might appreciate the first ad that results from a purchase online, the second, third, and fourth and you turn away.

The conclusion: Earn trust by respecting your current and prospective buyer. Do NOT treat them like data points. It’s annoying and creepy, and ultimately repulsive.

Be Honest. Be Real.

While this may sound obvious, honesty is not such a common trait in business. And to earn trust, we need honesty inside and outside the office doors. … This goes beyond your company culture, which should, of course, include being honest or “real” with your employees and stakeholders. This means speaking in terms people can understand and relate to. Lose the jargon, the embellishment and the flowery speech, and speak clearly. Clarity inside and out of the office will make people more comfortable about you, and about your brand.

By now, we’ve all heard about the 2018 Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example. The lack of transparency there turned to blatant deceit and manipulation of users. The dishonesty on the part of those responsible for that manipulation, is still happening today. Honesty doesn’t just mean meaning what you say. It also means not leaving things out. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that just putting up the oh-so-typical and confusing cookie notice, just to be GDPR-compliant, makes you honest. Be transparent about what you’re doing with the information your customer gives you. Write your privacy policy with words that make complete sense.

Stand for something.

Another point for those companies scoring high marks for trustworthiness, is having a conscience. Taking a stand for something that’s good for the world, and sticking with it, can serve as a core piece of your brand. Patagonia, for example, takes a clear stance on the environment – even going so far as to tell its customers in one ad, to stop buying more of their clothing if they didn’t really need more clothes. … Pushing sustainability in such a daring way resulted in skyrocketing sales. Levis Strauss, another name that tops the trust list, created “WaterLess” jeans, which were apparently made using tons less water, and hugely popular. In 2016, H&M teamed up with rapper icon, M.I.A., to produce a music video for World Recycle Week, urging consumers to “Rewear it” – another successful stand for sustainability.

The lesson: Even if it’s a small thing, have a clear voice, and try to make a difference with it.

In Tools we Trust?

We’ve already established that earning trust requires good behavior inside and out of company walls. In today’s world, trust also means being respectful of our customers, and our partners – particularly the way in which we handle their information. This is perhaps the hardest part, and where many companies have failed. In this digital age, it’s not easy, and it’s not just about compliance, but also about transparency. Even more of a challenge, it’s being careful about the various tools we use to communicate and work together. The technology we utilize to conduct business must also have integrity. They must be ethical and trustworthy too.

Back to the Cambridge Analytica story, there was a good example of a tool – in this case social media – that was “dishonest” or deceitful in the way it mishandled user data.

Tracking tools, too, such as Google Analytics, cookies, or heat maps that follow customers around everywhere so that advertisers can target them based on their behavior. Using those tools without informed consent is not only a no-no, but against regulation like GDPR and more on the way.

What about tools for communication and collaboration inside and beyond company borders? Below are a few questions to consider before choosing a system for your startup or business.

  1. Does the provider respect user privacy?  
    Privacy is important from an ethical standpoint, but also for the integrity of your business. Sensitive information, confidential documents, plans, contact info, etc. should be kept under your control.
  2. What’s in the Fine Print? / When you share information, are they sharing it too?
    Is the platform or service provider part owner of your data? Read The Fine Print. Many services share your basic info with third parties for profiling and targeting purposes. Is there a risk that confidential information is vulnerable or accesible outside of your company?
  3. Is the system integrated?  Chat, Newsfeed, Notes, Groups, Storage – all on platform? … OR, is it necessary to use other disparate systems to get all the functionality you want? If so, are those other systems also trustworthy?

Fortunately, there do exist players in the digital world, like DuckDuckGo, Brave, Qwant, Idka, and others, whose mission includes the protection of your rights. Your human rights. Privacy, freedom of speech, etc. (They are important. Protect them.) Look for a team whose background is not just tech, and whose mission is not just the “bottom line”. You can have privacy, integrity, TRUST,  and functionality too.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this past January, it was clear that Trust is of the utmost concern for the health of society and business in this “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” In a newly launched Manifesto, it is written that [an organization] “has zero tolerance for corruption. It keeps the digital ecosystem in which it operates reliable and trustworthy. …” Cybercrime, fake news, manipulation, political warfare, and more were all topics of discussion there.

Trust is not a new concept, but it’s one that, in our view, needs particularly close attention today, as we go about our increasingly digital lives. It’s not enough to be compliant with loosely enforced laws like the GDPR in the EU and CCPA in California. As organizations, we need to work harder than that to ensure that all of our relationships are built on trust. While there’s no doubt that trust has eroded, with a little work and a lot of humanity, we can rebuild it, and embrace it as an integral part of who we are as people and who we are as brands.