Is Trust Trending?

Here are six events I’ve noticed recently. I think there’s a connection, and perhaps even a trend in them. Help me sort out what that connection and trend might be, will you?

1. In mid-October, 100 of the world’s leading authorities on corporate disclosure gathered at Harvard Business School to attend an event called “A Workshop on Integrated Reporting: Frameworks and Action Plan” sponsored by the school’s Business and Environment Initiative. (Very briefly: Integrated reporting means combining traditional financial reporting with non-financial, i.e. Environmental, Social and Governance, issues). You can download a free ebook from the event with papers by about half the participants—it’s excellent.

2. The new Dean of Harvard Business School—who among other things had been a counselor to the MBA Oath program the year before—opened the conference, saying: "It’s a matter of great concern to me that society has lost so much trust in business.  It’s something that I think each and every one of us needs to pay great and serious attention to.  We live in a time in which business leaders are often trusted even less than politicians."

3. The New Yorker magazine printed an article titled, “What Good is Wall Street? Much of What Investment Bankers Do is Socially Useless,” whose tone is considerably less strident than its title might suggest.

4. October saw the release of the documentary “Inside Job,” a serious (and seriously critical) look at the recent financial crisis by Charles Ferguson, an MIT PhD in political science.

5. The MBA Oath, something that many considered faddish a year ago, seems to be gaining steam

6. Robert Ketchum, head of FINRA, seems to be advocating for a fiduciary standard of some sort for the brokerage business. 

One robin doth not a Spring make; and maybe I’m generally an optimist. But I think there’s something positive going on here.

When I see integrated reporting discussed by 100 people—not just non-financial reporting, but integrated reporting—I think that’s significant.

When I see global business institutions like the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration making serious trust-talk at the Dean’s level (and Dean Nitin Nohria was appointed in part, I’m sure, because he talks that way), I think that’s significant.

I realize the New Yorker is not Forbes magazine, but when they decide that it’s time to write a serious business article, and to do so with their high standards of journalism, I think that’s significant. 

When the financial legislation was passed earlier this year, the fiduciary issue was left out of the mandated laws, and left to the discretion of the SEC. Given the recent election results, I wouldn’t have predicted FINRA’s reaction. That feels significant.

What I think is significant about all this is not that an argument is being won or lost. This strikes me as refreshingly not about good and evil. It’s about a new willingness to take seriously some complex issues of trust. How do we integrate stakeholders? What does trust mean for governance? Can we have intelligent regulations that increase trust? 

Most of all, I sense a willingness to bring trust to the business table as a core and valid agenda item—a willingness that I don’t think was there as recently as just 12 months ago. 

Is something going on? Or am I on drugs? What do you think?

7 replies
  1. Rob Peters
    Rob Peters says:

    Charles:  As usual, you have the pulse of the "trust" dialog taking place.

    As I travel and talk about relationship capital (RC) and measuring kept-commitments and perceptions, many people are sharing their thoughts about what trust means to them.  Like a tooth with a cavity, this challenging economy has made people vulnerable and exposed the raw nerve of lack of trust.

    Is this any different than during the "great depression" or is the volume dial of the trust dialog  turned up due to our online interconnectedness.

    It has become clear to me that we need standard vocabulary or  commonly-accepted definitions  for  honesty, accountability, responsibility, respect, support, and boundaries so that individuals and their organizations can develop and manage deeper trusted relationships.

    How can you create an environment of trust when so many leaders and individuals have a different understanding?

    In the relationship economy, how can you influence and contribute to your relationship ecosystem without being trustworthy and trusting?

    Thank you for making a difference!

  2. John Spence
    John Spence says:

    Charles, a wonderful, wonderful post. Very thought-provoking – on a critically important subject – super links and references. You’ve given me a lot to think about and to share with my colleagues and readers – deeply appreciated – please keep up the superb work.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    So, is trust trending? Dunno, but (discussion of)  it is certainly  trendy. I just looked at the indexes of 31 books on my shelves – various topics/flavors of: coaching, managing, leadership, relationships and the like. Twenty-seven included “trust” in the index. Nothing new.

    And now: the New Yorker, trust events, workshops and conferences at Harvard,  more books  (The MBA Oath – and speaking of which, I’m curious if it’s more common these days for folks to “lie under oath,” than  in previous times—hmmm), documentaries and on and on.

    The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti wrote, “Thoughts are like furniture in a room.” Meaning?  We have a tendency to move furniture around, rearrange it, first over here, then over there and back again, perhaps cover it, perhaps reupholster it, perhaps new colors schemes…but in the end, it’s still the same “old” furniture (thoughts).

    Is it the same with trust and “trust-talk?”

    What I experience is a trend in the accumulation of trust and trust-talk  “stuff – books, events, reports and the like. The trend and the trending stuff.

    What I also experience is a dearth in the assimilation and integration of trust principles and practices that lead one to becoming trusting, trustful and trustworthy –  i.e., walking the talk. A big difference. The downward spiral and downward trend.

    To incorporate the quality of trust into one’s being, into one’s heart and make it part of one’s cellular structure requires way more than (one more) book, conference or article. It takes a conscious effort to chew on it, masticate it, digest it and take in its nutrients – heart and soul qualities – not very likely in our fast-food, microwave culture.  (OK, read that book, did that workshop, what’s next?” )

    To bring one to change their (trust) orientation to the world and the people in it, is not an intellectual or cognitive exercise or an event. It’s a “spiritual” process and practice. It requires an inner energy, passion and deep intentionality.  

    Enriching relationships, first with one’s self and then with others, and relating to one’s self and then to others requires a deeper, spiritual appreciation and understanding of human beings.  Few today are able or willing to take that time, go that far, make that leap, or have that faith. Few.

    Me? I would begin and end (no “middle”) all of these conferences, workshops, books and the like with something Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” That’s it. A change that is simple, but not easy.

    And then I would ask folks if they honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly feel they are able and/or willing to do what it takes to be really, really, really trusting and trustworthy.

    If they said no, I would give them ample contact information of support folks – e.g., coaches, counselors, therapists (no deans, professors, authors, or “trendy” folks), etc. –  who can help them to do the work to become honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly trusting and trustworthy.

    Then, it’s their choice. Meeting adjourned. End of chapter 1. Short and sweet.  

    What I like so much about your blog, Charlie, is you’re not afraid to periodically tug on folks’ sleeve to look “under the hood” at their emotional and psychological wiring – where the true stuff and foundation of our (willingness or unwillingness to be trusting and trustworthy) approach to people lies. You have a different set of “furniture” and it keeps changing. Very nice.

    My take is that the trendy approach to trust is more like rearranging the chairs/furniture (thoughts) on our social, financial, healthcare, political, religious and educational Titanics.

    Time is short. Trust me.



  4. Pierre Wolff
    Pierre Wolff says:

    The trust issue, or lack thereof, is indeed at an all time high.  Perhaps I can offer a different perspective on why it’s gaining attention, to add to this conversation.  The rapid digitization of information combined with our nearly fully network connected world, have conspired to accelerate and hence change the nature of information flows.  Add to this, the rapid drop in the cost of data acquisition, storage, aggregation/combination, and distribution, and we get a recipe for massive change.  Trust falls into this confluence.

    Napster affected the music industry and was the first glimpse that we got into the affects from the digitization of music on our traditional notion of its distribution.  Since then we have seen other technologies including Grokster, which as soon as it died gave rise to LimeWire and with it’s demise a number of other P2P networks have already assumed its role.  Bit Torrent has done the same for movies but continues to get smarter about distribution models that defy how we have traditionally regulated content.

    Privacy issues have garnered greater attention, but in a careful analysis, we find that among some of the activities classified as privacy violating, it is really nothing more the fact that what used to be difficult to collect, aggregate and distribute, is now easy.  The fact that conversations are now had in part electronically, and so they become accessible or transmittable (shared) beyond their intended audience.  We also find that this information about us remains accessible, in theory at least, forever.  Before digital networks and digital communications, I might have been fired from a job or shared information with a friend or attended a party, all in relative obscurity.  Today, that notion is quickly evaporating.  A check on Linkedin might quickly find that my prospective employer is connected to someone who worked at the company that I was fired from.  A picture taken by a friend at a party that I attended may be tagged with my name.  A note I sent a friend might have quickly been forwarded to 10 other people (or more).

    If we add the commercial interests in tracking and mining information about users of the network, and with recent disclosures, often without users’ consent or knowledge, we begin to see a root cause for users distrust of industry.  New norms have yet to be established for what is considered acceptable data collection and the terms of its acceptance.  Commercial interests have been leveraging and information arbitrage opportunity, often to the detriment of user and customer trust.

    Let’s now add secret information disclosures to this mix.  Secrecy and security are no longer as easily managed as they once were.  In the case of secrecy, we are talking directly about keeping information from being distributed inappropriately (as decided by those who want to keep the secret).  However, because it is information, securing this has become a non-trivial issue.  Witness the recent Wikileaks disclosures as a prime example that even the most closely guarded information can still find its way out to non-intended viewers.  This acceleration of information about the machinations of both government and industry, is being distributed with little context, but with sufficient detail so as to create a chasm between constituents and consumer trust expectations, and what is actually happening.

    I submit that with the erosion of trust, we will have to move to a world of greater transparency before we can begin to rebuild the necessary trust infrastructure we need for our commercial and government systems to return to smooth operation.  The loss of trust is following the rapid curve of information access, and until we can curb the poor behavior from politicians and business people being discovered in these disclosures, we will need to have a system that enables people to better understand the world around them.  Trust is the nucleus of so many systems we are affected by that we need to find ways to strengthen it at all costs.  

    The trust trend is at the bottom of an ‘S’ curve right now and I suspect we will continue to see it being addressed more and more frequently.

  5. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    I am with you. I see reason for optimism. While I think we can all agree that Trust is low and almost daily we get to see another business, government or public figure betray trust or at least act un-trustworthy. BUT—The fact that the public is talking so much about it, even if it is on the blogs, (they get read as yours surely does) that has influence.

    To Peter’s comments, yes there seems to e also a trendiness to the trust conversation. Many are seeking to learn how to be "seen" as trustworthy. Our intentions matter.

    Charlie, you and your colleagues are shining a light on the issue on a regular basis and as a result people are taking notice. As we continue to promote trust and demonstrate the value of trust it will come more to the forefront of our collective consciousness. And that can only be good.


    Keep Banging the Drum,



  6. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I’ve been particularly enjoying the comments in this discussion.

    But I’m not sure I’m 100% clear on the scope of theoriginal post. I take it you are talking about trust in business, not trust in general. Is that correct? In addition, are you talking about trends in talk about trust, or in levels of actual trust?

    I saw on your Twitter feed that you’ve been looking at Gallup’s new annual Honesty and Ethics survey.  Did you get a chance yet to look at the methodology, full question results, and trend data? (Note: link goes to a PDF.) The trend data is interesting and relevant to this conversation.

    The question asked was "Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields — very high, high, average, low, or very low?" Here is the recent trend for people answering "high" / "very high" for banking and business.

    1995 – 27%
    2005 – peaks at 41%
    2010 – 23%
    current trend: down

    Business executives
    1995 – 19%
    2001 – peaks at 25%
    2008 / 2009 – 12%
    2010 – 15%
    current trend – up 3 points, but still in historic low territory

    In fact, the only groups ranked lower on trust than business executives were (in descending order): state office holders, advertising practitioners, members of Congress, car sales people, and lobbyists. Ouch.

    To the general question of whether actual trust is trending, the answer lies in the specifics of "Trust in what?’. In the cases of bankers and business executives, the trust trends are overall very negative.

    And if your original post is about trust talk, that makes sense. We talk about resources when they are scarce. If anyone /should/ be talking about trust, earning trust, restoring trust, it very obviously should be bankers and business executives. Let’s hope they do more than just talk.




  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Wow.  That is some great bit of commentary.  I’m not going to try to comment on everyone’s offerings, because it’d just go on too long.

    But I want to pinpoint one very intriguing comment, by Pierre above:

    …with the erosion of trust, we will have to move to a world of greater transparency before we can begin to rebuild the necessary trust infrastructure we need for our commercial and government systems to return to smooth operation.

    I find that provocative, and I think it packs a lot of explanatory power.  When you first open up the source of a powerful odor, the stench is quite strong.  And you don’t fix it by patching up the whole, you fix it by letting the sunlight in to fix the stink at the source.  Then and only then, Pierre suggests, can you go about re-creating trustworthy definitions of privacy and security.


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