Your Money’s Worth

Repairing Busted Trust

Who do you trust these days? Probably not business. The 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that those in the U.S. most willing to “trust business to do what is right’” dropped from 58 percent to 38 percent, a record low.

Yes, there is law enforcement and a judicial system if someone doesn’t live up to the trust we placed in them—but as victims of swindlers like Bernie Madoff, or more locally, Dennis Thaut, realize, justice won’t restore what you’ve lost due to misplaced trust. The abilities to earn trust and to trust others are both fundamental to economic recovery. So, what must businesses do to repair busted trust?

The first step is to understand that trust is a word with multiple meanings. The “Six C’s of Trust” is a gauge that can be used to better understand trust, and can be applied to individuals or processes.* In Iran, for example, the Character or integrity of the election process was called into question. Trust between both parties was further eroded by their mutual response—a further failure of trust in both Clarity (communicating through riots or fiat) and Commitment (failing to recognize multiple stakeholder interests beyond the status quo).

For business owners coping with what will likely be the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, assessing how the Six C’s of Trust affect your business may be critical to your survival and recovery. Here are some questions you should be asking.

Character (integrity, self-control) — Does the business leader walk the talk, say what is meant and mean what is said? Does the business culture do the same? Independently (via a consultant) and anonymously survey your employees, customers, vendors, and stakeholders.

Competence (possessing the skills to successfully accomplish the task at hand) — How well do we do what we say we will do? Independently survey your customers, having them rank the ability of your product or service to meet their needs.

Clarity (of thinking and communicating) — What are the top two or three things that the business is trying to accomplish now? Is what we believe true, or have we made up reality to conform to our worldview? Ask management, employees, and customers to name the top two goals of the business, not including “making money.” How well do they describe your common goals?

Commitment (balancing self-interest with the needs of all stakeholders) — Have our commitments changed? Are we in survival mode, growth mode, or something in between? Do we act like we know the difference? Identify your top five to 10 commitments and leave space for Other. Ask your employees to prioritize your commitments. Conflicts occur when priorities are not aligned.

Courage (to make unpopular decisions for the long-term benefit of the stakeholders) — Is ours a business culture that encourages, ignores, or punishes those who speak the truth they see? Ask your employees to anonymously answer: If you ran the company, what would you stop doing now? Why? What would you do more of? Why? Who are the top three employees (management and non-management) whom you have the most and least confidence in?

Capacity (the ability to follow through) — Do we have the financial and organizational capacity to execute our plans if the economy remains challenging for several years? Check your cash flow projections against reality. Do we have the financial and human resources to grow or shrink based on what the market is telling us? Will our belief systems or culture allow us to do what is hard, i.e. change?

Ask your management, trusted advisers, employees, and outside consultants to honestly tell you what they see.

Trust is built by exposing what is true for your business stakeholders. Transparency and encouraging stakeholders to safely tell what is true are prerequisites for restoring trust. But a harder part remains: our willingness to hear truths and act accordingly.

In the words of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is.” Truths discovered in the Six C’s of Trust are often uncomfortable, inconvenient, and downright painful. Yet the sooner trust is rebuilt, the sooner your business recovery path will become clear.