Is trust really the curse of our modern times?

It’s all around us; philandering presidents and politicians, predatory broadcasters & media moguls, bent coppers, paedophile priests, insatiable bankers, tycoons on the take and oligarchs on the make?

…but…there is a wonderful line in Baz Luhrmann’s song Sunscreen

Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders

And, I think we only really need to think back to the Medici the Romans, and even the Bible to know that there have always been, and are always likely to be, a few bad apples.

The question for us is “what are the implications for owners and managers, if leaders and their organisations are mistrusted?

So, what is trust?

One definition is:

  • The firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something

Essentially, it is the belief that people and organisations act with integrity.

Veronica Hope Bailey is a professor of management and she has identified four drivers of trustworthiness for leaders:

  1. Integrity – Studies have shown that integrity is the single biggest characteristic that people want to see in their boss and this includes being caring supportive and inspiring.  As an entrepreneur you may at some point crash into that fine line between holding on to and discarding your values.  A line as fragile as that between madness and genius.  And should you choose to cross it you’ll jeopardise your own Peace of Mind as well as the trust of others. 
  2. Competence – People are competent when they have the knowledge and skills to undertake the task at hand.   In larger firms, and the world of the professional manager, on many occasions managers may not actually have, what’s been called, “domain knowledge”.  In fact, a few years ago Statius did some research with Kingston University into exactly this subject.  (If you’d like a copy of the report ping me an e-mail  In the world of the entrepreneur and owner manager, the one we are interested in, most supervisors and managers tend to come “off the tools” and as a result are often steeped in domain knowledge.
  3. Benevolence – essentially people (leaders) are charitable kind and good, not selfish, self -centred, mean-spirited and disagreeable.  Your people will notice small acts of kindness; bosses who coach, provide a helping hand, give good advice and praise are thought of as benevolent.  This is about more than just being “likeable”; it is about “giving” to others.
  4. Predictability – is about being able to forecast mood and behaviour in advance.  When I was an apprentice in the Merchant Navy my boss on one ship was a second engineer called John (I won’t mention his second name he may still be alive).  Very un-PC these days, but people called him “Harpic” because he was “clean round the bend”.   The problem was you never knew when you were getting “good John” or “mad John”… his behaviour was completely inconsistent.  Because of his inconsistencies his charges, including me, were forever “walking on egg-shells”.  It really isn’t possible to give the best of yourself in that environment; you are forever looking over your shoulder.  In order for staff to perform at their best you need to provide them with a stable, moral, fair and predictable environment.

Trust in individuals

In view of the above, it is easy to see that it is unlikely that “spotlight seeking superstar leaders” are likely to inspire much trust, at least in the longer term.   

In addition, probably as to be expected, the greater the distance between people in an organisation the less trust there is likely to be.  All things being equal, you are likely to be much less trusting of someone in the hierarchy three layers above you, than you are to your own manager.

Trust in organisations

There is a rather alienating phrase used by psychologists called “procedural and distributive justice”, which basically means, that organisational systems and processes are equitable and fair.

Essentially, staff need to feel that they are treated fairly in terms of key components of the job; payment, salary, promotion, attention.   Even better if they believe the underlying mission of the organisation is essentially a good thing.

Sign of the times – Good times bad times

The current “environment” can also impact trust.  In bad times a bad boss might focus on themselves, hide or double down on spin, whereas a good boss will communicate thoughtfully, considerately and compassionately, they’ll focus on their staff, customers and shareholders, probably in that order.

Communication is the antidote to the virus of mis-trust.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  It’s usually only when your thoroughly bored of repeating yourself that things are likely to be sinking in.


Customers want their suppliers and their leaders to be honest, open and transparent.  They don’t want (or deserve) companies that lie and deceive.  We all want organisations we can trust – we all want integrity.  The same goes for your staff: people want leaders they can trust.  A business lives and dies by its reputation.  And with the advent of social media it only takes a few clicks on a phone or a keyboard and your reputation is ruined. 

Only this week I missed a meeting, entirely my fault, I was distracted with the fact that for no particularly good reason our Local Authority had decided that my adopted son wasn’t going to the college that he’d been unconditionally accepted for and set his heart on.  I was in meetings with solicitors and completely overlooked a meeting with a potential new client.  As soon as I realised, I fell on my sword sent a very apologetic e-mail hoping to rectify the situation.  At the time of writing, I have yet to receive a response, so all could have been in vain, but I was in the wrong and I would not blame them if they now mistrusted me and wanted to take the relationship no further.

The illustrious leader and ex-CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, once said: “Integrity is the only thing that cannot be bought or sold.” Integrity is critical and trust is fragile and it works both ways.  Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, suggests it’s one of the most neglected metrics in the whole of the business and leadership game. 

I couldn’t agree more.

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