Why We Don’t Trust Companies Part I

"Trust Me" (photo by Nancy Xu)People don’t trust companies very much.

Sure, we trust some companies more than others, and sometimes we trust them more than government (sometimes not), but when you think of someone you trust, a corporation tends not to come first to mind.

There are three simple, powerful, obvious reasons for this – every one of which tends to get ignored by corporations. Who then wonder why they’re not trusted.

Reason 1: Trust is Heavily Personal

Very few companies bother to make a simple distinction – that between trusting and being trusted. It takes both to create trust.

Only people can do trusting. To trust another is an act of will, not of policy or odds-making. Corporations, notwithstanding what Mitt Romney and the US Supreme Court ruled, cannot in any intelligible manner be said to “trust” others. It’s a human thing.  So right there, half of trust can only be done by humans.

The other half, trustworthiness, also applies largely to humans. We might say, “I trust the sun will rise tomorrow,” but when it does, you don’t get much credit for your courageous risk-taking. You may trust Amazon to predict your book preferences, but that doesn’t mean you’d trust Amazon to make sales calls for you or set you up on a date.

Trust is hugely contextual, and the few contexts in which we “trust” a company tend to be very bloodless, relying largely on predictability of behavior. And it doesn’t run deep.

Trust is personal, and companies aren’t. Sorry, companies.

Reason 2: Companies Don’t Understand Trust

I noted above that companies rarely distinguish between something as basic as trusting and being trusted. Therefore, if they score low on trust surveys, they can’t tell whether the solution lies in being more trustworthy, or in being more trusting.

By default, most of them implicitly assume the issue is trustworthiness. This means they completely pass up opportunities to create trust by trusting their stakeholder constituencies, or by valuing the propensity to trust within the organization. Worse, they may even harm trustworthiness by assuming that it requires greater internal controls, thus limiting employees’ ability to be trusting.

Trust is contextual, and companies tend to be very vague about it. Sorry, companies.

Reason 3: Companies Choose Trust Tools Badly

Most companies confuse trust with reputation. They view it as a communications problem, something to be handled by PR, especially in times of crisis. Trust problems are addressed by amping up the messaging.

Most companies, if they think about increasing trust, will instantly phrase the issue in terms of measurement.  How do you measure it, what metrics can be developed to track it, and how do we manage to the metrics?

Most companies, to go along with their metrics, favor processes and policies as a way of increasing trust. We will review this 4 times, no Xs will go out without Ys, we celebrate Q and we will not tolerate Z.

But trust doesn’t work that way. Since trust is personal, it is transmitted largely through character, role-modeling, values, conversations, personal transparency, integrity, constructive confrontation, public praise and shaming, and mutual respect. How many corporate programs can you identify that use those as tools?

The one communications policy that positively affects trust is transparency; yet it is often sacrificed for message control, which predictably reduces trust. Reputation doesn’t drive trust – trust drives reputation, in any sensible time-frame past a fiscal quarter or two.

The measurement of trust is simply not as important an issue as companies make it out to be. We don’t measure love, and love seems to do fine without it; in fact we would be suspicious of people who purport to be able to measure love, much less do it quarterly, monthly and weekly. You do not need to measure trust in order to manage with it – see the list above of how it works.

Finally, policies and procedures are inherently impersonal. Other than creating greater predictability, is it any wonder they don’t affect trust? In fact, if you get enough policies and procedures, it makes everyone confuse compliance with ethics, and you end up with reduced trust.

There are many reasons we might not trust a company, or companies in general. But the biggest reasons are because we’ve defined the problem wrongly at the very outset.