Earning trust is simpler than you think

Nick Barron

Trust is the social capital that allows civil society to function. Countries with high aggregate levels of trust trade more, embrace innovation more easily and require less regulation. Government by consent requires trust, so it is right that governments should consider how best to strengthen the trust bonds with, and between, citizens.

Unfortunately, the conversation about trust is often distorted by wishful thinking, self-serving recommendations, and piety.

The wishful thinking stems from the belief that trust flows naturally to those who deserve it. This false-premise leads advisors to assert that the best way to build trust is to ‘do good.’ In this analysis, the recommendations are as easy to say as they are difficult to do: ‘Businesses should simply pay their fair share of taxes’, while ‘politicians should simply tell the truth,’ and so on.

The self-serving recommendations come from advisors who write their own job descriptions by urging organisations to build trust by communicating more. The ‘transparency’ and ‘engagement’ these advisors prescribe also happen to be just the sort of activities that these same advisors are perfectly placed to deliver. However, overcommunicating can be counterproductive. By contrast, The Queen speaks rarely and is more trusted as a result.

And the piety comes from those who think of trust as a moral construct. Hand-wringing about the state of trust as though it is a collective moral failure earns headlines, but achieves nothing. Trust is better understood in transactional terms.

Let’s take Amazon by way of example.

The British public trusts Amazon with a growing share of our wallets and data. We allow its microphones inside our homes. We build our businesses on its servers and trade through its marketplace. When Amazon moves into a new market category, incumbents shudder, because they know that customers will trust Amazon in a space where it is hitherto unproven. Admirers of the BBC observe that during the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for its news output soared as people sought out trusted news in a time of national crisis. What then does booming demand for Amazon’s services during this same crisis say about trust in its brand?

As a company, however, Amazon does few of the things communications advisors tend to recommend. Its tax affairs and employment practices are the subject of fierce criticism, its approach to corporate communications is best-described as opaque, and it has made its founder the poster-child for global inequality.

The trust model recommended by many advisors thus fails the simple test of explaining trust in Amazon. And the model flops because its designers describe what they think ought to be the case, rather than what is so.

Strip away the sophistry, and evidence shows that the best way to earn trust is to:

1. Deliver results. The most trusted governments tend to run the countries that have delivered the strongest results on a basket of economic and social metrics. The most trusted industries tend to be those whose value is most tangible and relatable.

2. Be consistent over time and demonstrate that your interests are aligned with your audience. We can even trust proven liars if we believe we understand their goals. As the Prisoner’s Dilemma game has shown, we do not need to believe the other person to have great personal integrity in order to trust them, we just need to understand their incentives. Unilever’s purpose pledges are more trusted because they are underpinned by a hard-nosed commercial rationale.

3. Signal that you are similar to the audience with whom you are seeking to build trust. As studies of messenger effects have shown, we are more likely to listen to those whom we judge to be in some way like ourselves. There are many ways to achieve this kind of connection, including superficial indicators like dress or accent, but also by signalling shared values or common experiences. Making someone laugh is a great way to earn their trust.

This may sound like a cynical recipe for trust-building, but it is surely less cynical than ineffective platitudes. This model passes the Amazon test – and the Monarchy test for that matter. And the good news is that these three principles are relatively easy to adopt.

For business or government to function effectively, it does not need to be liked, admired or venerated for its moral rectitude – and we should not conflate these noble goals with that of building trust. There are lots of reasons to ‘do the right thing’, but don’t expect that that alone will drive a big uptick in trust.

Any organisation that wants to be trusted needs to demonstrate the value of its work and the competence of its people, avoid over-claiming or sudden changes of course, and signal to the people it serves that it understands and shares their needs and priorities.