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The Building Blocks of Trust

Bruce MacLellan

There are LEGO building bricks on the ground. The building blocks of trust.

Our talented team has been excited to work with the iconic LEGO brand this year, launching the LEGO Replay program in Canada. It’s a great program and community partnership to get used LEGO products into the hands of other kids. We did this work in conjunction with our global affiliate WE Communications, headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. (No connection whatsoever to the WE brothers in Canada!)

Everyone would agree that LEGO is a trusted brand. Generations of kids, myself included, have grown up with the product in our lives. In my day, it was mainly bricks, but now the product range is endless.

I was thinking recently that not only is LEGO a trusted brand, but the bricks are also a perfect metaphor for building trust. It’s a lesson every organization can embrace, from corporations to charities to government. Trust is attainable. Trust deserves a building plan.

The American crisis should not distract our work to build trust

I write this in the wake of an intense election in the United States followed by the still unfolding bizarre post-election period. Much is being written about the decline of trust, in political leaders, news media, ballot counting and polling research. It’s an urgent discussion and the problems and solutions are complex. The future of American democracy is at stake. The outgoing President has waged a war on trust. My favourite article about the US situation is by Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis, in his piece about Covid-19 and the impact on America writing this summer in Rolling Stone.

What should not happen is a collective resignation that trust is lost. Even though we see threats from broad social or political fractures, individuals and organizations can do their part to sustain and build trust.

Let’s build trust from the bottom up

We can’t take trust for granted from the top down nowadays, but we can certainly build it from the bottom up. It may be our society’s greatest hope that leaders, boards, managers, volunteers, shareholders and others all take up the mission of trust.  In the pantheon of organizational importance, trust is critical to strategy, culture, productivity, innovation and many other organization imperatives, yet it is often misunderstood and rarely made a priority.

Context is important. The two biggest events in 2020, the pandemic and the urgency of equity and social justice, are having a massive impact on trust. Each alone is a factor but they also interconnect as multipliers. Social, racial and economic aspects of inequality clearly make the pandemic more deadly for some groups compared to others.

Combined, they are ensuring that trust will be earned more now by the honesty of communications and equity-based assessments. Aaron Deslatte of Indiana University has captured this reality in his new research and writing. Deslatte makes clear that honest, empathetic and frequent communications are essential to building trust in the pandemic.

Returning to my bottom up hope for trust, while everyone agrees on the importance, few know how or where to start. Concern about trust is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Almost six years ago, we pioneered one of the most comprehensive annual studies of trust in Canada – the CanTrust Index. In 2020, we found worrying declines in trust, particularly with large private companies.

As the pandemic has unfolded, we also found a distinctly Canadian trust story. By May, there had been a heartening increase in trust in several key groups including doctors (76 per cent to 87 per cent), scientists (70 per cent to 82 per cent), not-for-profits (49 per cent to 56 per cent) and governments (33 per cent to 40 per cent).  These findings are a major contrast to public opinion in our southern neighbour.

It is clear that Canadians are putting faith in government and professionals to guide us through the crisis. However, the increase in trust has not been all-inclusive. In the same period, trust in CEOs has declined to an all-time low, falling from 38 per cent in January to 30 per cent in May.  CEOs need to better understand the values and interests of their employees and how to communicate with them more effectively during the crisis.

We’ve seen an avalanche of studies about trust in the past five years, but all they do is agree on a problem. It’s time to move toward solutions.

Four action steps for trust

1. Trust literacy workshops & development programs

Most people don’t understand how trust really works. When we conduct these workshops, participants develop a common trust language grounded in their unique work culture and environment. These workshops and programs are designed to explain what trust is, how it is built within an organizational context and why trust is so critical to business outcomes. 

2. Know your values and how they link to trust

After this year and the events around the world, equity, diversity and inclusion are mandatory. Employees, customers and all stakeholders want to know what your values are, whether they are similar to their own, and how they guide your decision-making.

3. Leaders and organizations have to work together

Understanding the dual roles of leadership and the organization in building trust is critical.  One leader can’t do it alone, interpersonal trust just isn’t scalable. A leader’s role is to set the example, but research clearly shows that trust is also won or lost by influencers at varying places in the organization and the degree to which trust is strategically embedded into your organization’s culture, structure and strategy.

4. Develop a solid trust-building strategy and then implement: Communication is key.

This is the “make trust happen in your organization” part. The research is absolutely clear on this one: having high trust in your organization improves on just about every metric – from transaction costs to productivity to employee wellbeing. However, it’s not enough for organizations to simply talk about trust or write it down as strategy.  The key is in the implementation (think of this as operationalizing trust) and the degree to which this implementation is communicated on an ongoing basis across the organization. The mandate for trust must eventually be owned by everyone across your organization – inside and out — for it to work, and to do this at scale, you need a strong, strategic communications team in your corner that can make that happen.

We launched Trustlab Inc. earlier this year because our 5+ years of research proved we have a problem with declining trust, but there is a gap between concern and action. It’s one of our LEGO bricks. Already, our consulting experts in Trustlab are offering training and benchmarking services to help clients advance.

What is your organization doing about trust?