One of my very favorite quotes is from Warren Buffet. He famously said, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. But if you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.”
We’ve had several years of lost trust. There are all sorts of conspiracy theories (I just read a great one about the deep fakes in the government), there is a ton of misinformation about the pandemic and about the vaccines, and we had a few years there where we didn’t know if what was coming out of the White House was true or not.
Trust in the media, scientists, and certainly, the government has taken a nosedive in the past few years. Trust is less quantifiable than other forms of capital. Its decline is vaguely felt before it’s plainly seen. It’s also incredibly challenging to restore it once it’s lost.
The good news is that this makes the role of the communicator even more important. That coveted seat at the table we’ve been pining over? Our ability to maintain and build trust gives us that opportunity.
While the past 21 months have been incredibly challenging, the silver lining is that the work we do is finally, finally understood and appreciated.
It’s the time of year when everyone talks about trends for next year. I love being asked to look into my crystal ball as if I have some magical power. I do not, but I have enough experience now to be able to read the global tea leaves in order to be able to predict what might be coming next.
And trust is one of the trends we’re moving toward in 2022.
Three Trends for 2022
We’ve talked a bit about how the role of the communicator has changed since March of 2020. Suddenly we’ve found ourselves in the position of being one of the most highly sought-after colleagues. As organizations—and business leaders—look to extol their values without alienating half of their team nor half of their customers, they call us.
Diversity, equality, and inclusion also are big trends that communicators can affect (if you want to more about how, watch my interview with Doug Simon).
I also think measurement is going to be an even bigger force in 2022. We aren’t going to be able to continue getting away with measuring impressions and the number of stories placed. Executives just don’t care. They want real data that proves the work we do is leading to results. Without it, we don’t have jobs.
But to be successful in all of these things—values-based marketing, DE&I, and measurement—we have to nail one thing: trust.
We’ve Lost Trust
One of the outcomes of the pandemic is we’ve lost trust as businesspeople. As companies went virtual, executives wonder if their remote workers are actually working. A NY Times article showed that many new colleagues started new jobs and left those jobs without ever having met. And direct reports have begun to ask if they could have, what should be casual understandings, put down in writing.
I’ve even seen a big difference just in how people respond to a simple Slack message. Some of that is generational for sure (do NOT put a period after someone’s name—I repeat, do not!), but a lot of it has to do with the fact that we haven’t been able to read people’s body language in nearly two years.
And that leads to a lack of trust.
At the same time, business leaders haven’t done the best job of communicating a return to the brick-and-mortar office plan. In some cases, they’ve made decisions without talking to their colleagues in a take it or leave it manner and, in others, they’ve not communicated anything at all until a week or two before they expected the team to make significant changes to how they’ve been working for nearly two years.
All of this also leads to a lack of trust.
We Are Headed for a Trust Recession
Trust is one of those things that is really hard to regain, once you’ve lost it, which is why Warren Buffet always said he’d be ruthless if you damaged that for his organizations.
A survey by a work design firm in Australia found that it’s not just employees having trust issues; it’s bosses, too. I always roll my eyes when I hear bosses don’t trust the people they hired. Are people throwing a load of laundry in during the day or walking their dogs? For sure, they are. But it’s not leading to unproductive teams. If anything, it’s making us more productive. The idea that bosses have to see people in their seats to know they’re doing their jobs always makes me want to yell, “OK, BOOMER!”
But according to that survey, about 60% of supervisors doubted or were unsure that remote workers performed as well or were as motivated as those in the office. Meanwhile, demand for employee surveillance software has skyrocketed since March of 2020. OK, BOOMER!
While all of this is happening, people are leaving their jobs at astonishing rates.
All of this leads to a trust recession—and it’s one of those things that communicators can affect, which is why it’s a 2022 trend.
Trust Leads to Economic Growth
There is an interesting article in The Atlantic that speaks to this. I’m going to read aloud a paragraph they wrote because I can’t state it quite as well, “Trust is to capitalism what alcohol is to wedding receptions: a social lubricant. In low-trust societies (Russia, southern Italy), economic growth is constrained. People who don’t trust other people think twice before investing in, collaborating with, or hiring someone who isn’t a family member (or a member of their criminal gang).
“The concept may sound squishy, but the effect isn’t. The economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack found, in a study published in 1998, that a 15 percent bump in a nation’s belief that “most people can be trusted” adds a full percentage point to economic growth each year.
That means that if, for the past 20 years, Americans had trusted one another as Ukrainians did, our annual GDP per capita would be $11,000 lower; if we had trusted as New Zealanders did, it’d be $16,000 higher. “If trust is sufficiently low,” they wrote, “economic growth is unachievable.”
But a trust recession is not just an issue for the economy. It affects our daily lives—and it’s not good.
Lack of Memories = Lack of Trust
I read an article—I don’t remember where—but it talked about part of the reason burnout is so high right now is that human beings need to make memories. Those memories are typically made from going places and being with other people. And, while things have gotten considerably better on that front since March of 2020, we continue to have the pandemic lingering over our heads.
Add to that the idea that we don’t get to have the normal watercooler conversations we would have if we were in the office together. If you separate people, that all dries up, no matter how hard Slack works to recreate it (it’s just not the same).
I had a conversation with a client a few weeks ago. He was complaining that his leadership team doesn’t trust him. He wanted my thoughts on what he could do differently.
We talked about some of the people on his team he trusts the most and I asked him why he trusts them. He thought about it for a minute and then said, ‘It’s because they do what they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do it.”
I didn’t say a word. I let the silence fill. After several seconds, he said, “I see. I say I’m going to do things and then I get busy and I don’t ever follow through.”
(I love it when I don’t have to say a word and they realize things all on their own.)
Trust Equals Two Characteristics
Trust is about two things, according to a recent story in the Harvard Business Review: competence and character. Meaning, is this person going to deliver quality work? And, is this a person of integrity?
When we were kids, my mom would say, as we left the house, “Remember who you are and what you stand for.” Meaning, behave as you’ve been raised, do what you say you’re going to do, and always be on time. This led us as teenagers to (mostly) follow the rules (well, I did—I can’t speak for my brothers and sister) and to become upstanding adults who had integrity instilled in them since birth.
As I discussed with my client, oftentimes trust is in the simplest of acts—doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. And, in a world where we’re not always together in person, overcommunication is necessary.
We have a client who went dark on us for five days, which was really unusual for him. We had some deadlines that he agreed to and then just never followed through, which was also uncharacteristic. Of course, we assumed the worst. First, we thought maybe he’d been in an accident. Then when his assistant said he had taken some time off, we assumed he was mad at us and looking for another agency.
The truth of the matter is that he had emergency surgery, but didn’t want anyone to know so he didn’t say anything—not even to his assistant. But it led to all sorts of problems, and we weren’t the only ones freaking out.
Communicators Can Rebuild Trust
As communicators, our job is to build trust not just with internal and external audiences, but to make sure that trust is always high and never rifled with. It’s to ensure, as a business, we’ve overcommunicated, particularly in remote and/or hybrid situations. And, in some cases, it’s to coach colleagues on how to build trust for themselves.
If you keep that front and center for 2022, it will become cultural and everyone will have you to thank.