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Building Trust with Gen Zs: Leaders Need to Show Up and Speak Up

McCartney Lee

Our leaders aren’t inspiring much confidence right now. The pandemic, climate crisis, and conflicts at home and abroad have left Canadians feeling concerned and frustrated. It’s no surprise then that trust is low among the youngest of us: Generation Z.

According to the Proof Strategies CanTrust Index, only 41 per cent of Gen Zs (Canadians born after 1996) believe that most people can be trusted. Canada’s youngest are less inclined to trust their neighbours, with most believing that you can’t be too careful when dealing with people.

This mistrust starts at the top.

Corporate scandals and unethical decisions from big business has left young people disappointed, fueling mistrust among a generation that is desperate for progress. Only 36 percent of Gen Zs trust large companies and corporate boards to do the right thing.

Gen Zs have a reputation. Always plugged in, smartphone inches from the face, the stereotypical iPad kid grew up with access to information at their fingertips. They’re more likely to value products that suit their digital-savvy lifestyles—like streaming services (HBO’s Euphoria is a must). Many of them trust social media, celebrities, and influencers to provide them with reliable information.

But they also believe in breaking down barriers. Even now, as Florida Republicans finalize a disturbing and regressive anti-Gay bill, Gen Z’s across the state are staging massive protests by leveraging social media. Young people are more open-minded and aren’t afraid to speak up about important issues impacting the planet. Ever heard of Greta Thunberg?

So, what’s it going to take to build trust among the new generation?

Representation matters, big time

There’s still dismally poor representation of gender and diversity at the highest levels of society. Young people want role models. People they can learn from but also see themselves and their experiences reflected in.

In large corporations, representation among senior positions is still lacking for womxn, visible minorities, Indigenous groups, and members of LGBTQ2S+ communities.

Diversity matters to Canada’s youth. When asked about what makes a brand more trustworthy, 65 per cent of Gen Zs said that diversity and inclusion policies do, compared to 52 per cent of Boomers. It’s time that we make this a priority.

Leaders need to show up and speak up

If you’re going to lead… be a leader.

Gen Zs don’t shy away from social issues. They understand their own agency and are comfortable with challenging authority, politely but firmly. To build trust with the younger generation and attract some of the top talent out there, senior leaders also need to show up and speak up.

When asked if business leaders have an obligation to speak out about issues affecting their community, 58 per cent of Gen Zs said that they should. Additionally, 64 per cent are more likely to trust a company that advocates for positive social change, compared to 52 per cent of Boomers.

And actions always speak louder than words. Implementing progressive social policies and supporting charitable organizations at home and abroad can also build trust with young people. Practice what you preach.

Popular outerwear brand Patagonia is leading by example. In response to widespread pollution from “fast fashion” supergiants, Patagonia has built their brand around the idea that consumers should be encouraged to buy less. Even using the slogan DON’T BUY THIS JACKET as part of their Common Threads Initiative. This approach to marketing has helped establish their brand as notably ethical and environmentally conscious. Patagonia also donates one per cent of annual sales to environmental causes and offers to repair, reuse, or recycle your used gear.

The Levi’s “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign also resonates. Supported by a cohort of young “changemakers” including climate activists Xiye Bastida and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the initiative discourages over consumption and encourages long-term use. The company has also reduced their own natural resource footprint significantly, saving billions of liters of water since the campaign started last year.

Canada has a long way to go when it comes to building trust among youth. What we do know is that trust can be built through ethics, transparency, and community involvement. Leaders who make diversity a priority and walk the talk can get us there.

To learn more about how you can build trust, click here.